Rally showdown in Wales


It’s that time of year again – time to head west for Wales Rally GB, the final round in the 2011 World Rally Championship. And this one will be a thriller because it’s pretty tight at the top of the table – just eight points separate leader Sébastien Loeb from Mikko Hirvonen with 25 on offer for a win. One of them will be World Champion by the end of Sunday November 13.

Citroën has already won the manufacturers’ title but Hirvonen and his Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team will be throwing everything they’ve got at Monsieur Loeb in the Welsh valleys. We know that the Frenchman remains remarkably calm under pressure, but the Finn has had a good season with two wins under his belt and has a real chance of knocking Loeb off his perch. Amazingly, only three men have won a rally this year – Hirvonen, Loeb and his team-mate Sébastien Ogier.

One thing is certain at the title decider – dust will not be a problem in Wales in November. At the last round in Spain the drivers – except Loeb, who won – complained bitterly about dust on some of the stages. They simply couldn’t see where they were going – not ideal when you’re flat out on a single-track road. But this is the challenge of rallying, what makes it so special, and unpredictable. In Wales, however, mud is more likely to be the problem.

For the Brits, of whom there will be a huge number out on the windswept stages, there is positive news. In Spain Kris Meeke won a Power Stage in the Mini and said he had the pace to stay with the leaders had it not been for the dust. The MINI World Rally Team has had a pretty good first season all in all, with podiums and encouraging stage times despite not competing in every round. Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle could go well in Wales, and being on home turf always helps to shave a few tenths off the times…

Hirvonen needs nothing less than a perfect rally if he is to prevent Loeb from winning an eighth straight world title. The Ford Fiesta RS WRC is a very good rally car, but so is Citroën’s DS3 WRC. As ever it will be down to perfect preparation, mechanical reliability and being ‘in the zone’ from stage one on day one.

There will be tactics too. Citroën may have captured the manufacturers’ crown, but no doubt it will want Ogier to stay ahead of Hirvonen and, more importantly, behind Loeb. This is not as straightforward as it sounds because the two Frenchmen are not, shall we say, the best of buddies. Many people, including Ogier, reckoned he would stop the express train that is Loeb this season. But it has not happened that way and there has been some tension in the camp.

Wales Rally GB is one of the toughest events of the year. The weather will play a part, as always, and stages such as Sweet Lamb and Great Orme – a twisty Tarmac test last used in 1981 – are among the sport’s most demanding.

There are many reasons to pack your woolly hat, boots and anorak and head to Wales in a week’s time. Can Loeb do it again? Probably.

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