Rally GB – a winter wonderland


Winter is here. It is cold in England, minus four this morning, and that’s in a valley just 20 miles from the sea. Well, of course winter has arrived – it is the week of Wales Rally GB, still known to many of us as the RAC Rally.

Mikko Hirvonen, on his way to victory in last month’s Rally Japan, remarked that the weather on the final stages was a taste of things to come at the final round in Wales. As Leg 3 began there was ice on the opening stages, followed by torrential rain. On the opening day Special Stage 3 at Isepo was cancelled due to snow. Sapporo, at the southern end of Hokkaido Island, has huge amounts of snow in winter, the white stuff now – sadly – a rare hazard in the modern World Rally Championship.

“That rain was proper RAC-spec weather,” said the Finn, a man not much phased by bad weather. We know what he means and we can expect more of the same as we head for Wales later this week. I am packing a woolly hat, gloves and boots. Watching men like Loeb, Solberg and Hirvonen thrash through the valleys warms your heart, but not your feet.

Neither Sébastien Loeb nor Citroën have ever won this rally. The climate is more suited, as we have said, to the Scandinavians who have dominated the leaderboard in recent times. Spectacular Petter Solberg won it four years in a row, but only after Englishman Richard Burns upset the form book with a hat-trick of victories in the final years of the last millennium. If it is very wet this year we might expect the Fords of Hirvonen and Latvala to be at the front. In Japan Loeb took his fifth world title and he will be keen to finally get his name on the trophy that has so far eluded him. It should be noted, however, that in 2005 Loeb slowed deliberately to avoid winning the rally, and with it the title, following Michael Park’s fatal accident on the event.

There will be much attention focused on Wales Rally GB this winter. Valentino Rossi will be out in a Ford and team manager Malcolm Wilson reckons that the Italian has the speed, on asphalt anyway, to finish in the top 10. Then there’s Welsh teenager Tom Cave, tackling his first ever WRC event having passed his driving test only last month… yup, they get younger and younger. It’s always exciting to see a new talent, in any sport.

Look at what Vettel and Hamilton have done for Grand Prix racing, and you can only wonder where Arsene Wenger finds the likes of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott. Blimey, his captain Cesc Fabregas is only 21, having gone to Highbury as a teenager. Exceptionally talented youngsters refresh and invigorate sport in a way that rule changes and other artifices never can.

While we’re on the subject of the weather, and yes we Brits talk of little else, how about running all Grands Prix in the rain? For a rally driver, it’s par for the course, but a little RAC-spec rain seems to bring an inordinate rush of excitement to a Grand Prix.

And finally, can you believe this? Earlier this season Monsieur Loeb was asked to cut his hair and shave his face. It was alleged that Morrie Chandler, who looks after rallies for the FIA, suggested that the World Champion’s long hair and stubble brought disrepute to the sport. I’m sorry? Can this be true? No wonder there are no beards in the FIA’s Formula 1, bar Nick Heidfeld’s of course!

I shall try and verify this with Loeb during my audience with the man in Swansea later this week. I haven’t told the nice people from Citroën, but I am driving down to Wales in my Renault. Vive La France et Vive Le Sport.

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