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GP Week : Issue 166
RALLY >>> PREVIEW Wales Rally GB is round 10 of the 2012 world rally championship, a qualifying round for the SWRC and the penultimate all-gravel round of the series. Four drivers are still eligible for the driver’s title this year, the two Citroen drivers Sebastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen, Ford team driver Petter Solberg and amazingly privateer Ford driver Mads Ostberg, despite missing two of the preceding nine events this year. Although already far ahead of his rivals, even if Sebastien Loeb comes away with a maximum points score and his nearest rival does not score, he will still be short of the title by two points. The title hopes of Ford’s other team driver 27 year-old Jari Matti Latvala, whose WRC career began at this rally exactly 10 years ago, ended at Rallye Deutschland. The event follows a similar format to last year, which has been promotionally styled to suit the interests of the Welsh tourism authorities. This year the only activity to the north of the principality is the night-time ceremonial start at Llandudno, which entails considerable non-competitive travelling for the crews. The epicentre of the event is Cardiff in the south some 400km away by the recommended route, with the Qualifying stage being held some 90km inland from Cardiff, two days before the first special stage. All the forest stages, in central and south central Wales are familiar, but there is a strange 3km asphalt stage run in the grounds of Celtic Manor resort, near Newport, on early evening Saturday. The main change is that the rally reverts this year to a September date, which has caused a lot of knock-on consequences, particularly to the entry level, but also to climatic factors. Whereas the top level entry is as strong as ever, the main news factor is the very small total entry list, with only 31 crews signed up to take part, and with no private British competitors at all. A further 41 club competitors have entered a three-day parallel national event which uses the same stages once rather than twice, and the total field is made up with six entries driving Landrovers. The low number of entries for the WRC event is a tragic situation for this classic fixture, which has been held as a championship qualifying event every year since the world series started in 1973, and this year celebrates 80 years since the event was first run. It is less than half the number of WRC event entries last year. Date clashes with both the IRC and the APRC have not helped. This is the period in the run-up to the end of the season when remaining car and component allocations come to the fore. For this reason the Mini Portugal team car to be driven by Chris Atkinson has to be the old 01A version so there will be no 01B Minis on this event. Main challenge for the teams is the extreme logistics demanded by the format, one team saying it is more difficult than the Monte Carlo Rally. The tyre situation has changed following a rule change by the FIA. No longer must the alternative compound tyre only be available in severely restricted quantities – the top crews all have 30 soft and 22 hard tyres available to choose from. The correct tyre choices for the long Leg 1(146km, 45% of the competitive route) will be tricky, especially because the decision has to be made 15 hours before the first stage is run. Cars go into parc ferme after the ceremonial start the evening before, until remote service midday Friday. Originally the running order selection was to be declared after the Qualifying Stage on the Wednesday, but following requests by the teams, the selection process has now been deferred till the Ceremonial stage itself the next day. Matthew Wilson makes a return to the WRC scene having missed rallies since February as a result of a foot injury and then the collapse of the Go Fast rally team. Evgeniy Novikov comes with a new co-driver, this time Ilka Minor, and there is a welcome return to WRC rallies for the six-times South African champion Jannie Habig, a veteran who celebrates his 53th birthday on Day 1 of the event. Robbie Durant, the regular co-driver for Harry Hunt, is to co-drive. The top SWRC news surrounds the re-planning of the Proton team, following the engine failure of Hayden Paddon’s Skoda in Finland. Suddenly Proton driver PG Andersson finds himself six points ahead of Paddon, and an unexpected vista of a title has appeared. Andersson’s programme has been moved away from the Asia Pacific series. Proton guest driver Juha Salo was offered a drive in the two final rounds of the APRC, this event in Japan and then China Rally, instead of a single remaining drive in Britain. Having expected to be absent at the IRC event in Ukraine meant that Skoda UK driver Andreas Mikkelsen will miss this rally and Kevin Abbring comes back again as the VW teammate for Sebastien Ogier instead. Saddest feature of the rally is the privateer scene. There are only eight crews on the event who are not championship entries or run by a factory, and of these only one entry typifies the traditional clubman spirit that has made the event so popular in earlier years. This is the Belgian driver Renaud Bronkart who won his class in a Toyota Yaris on the recent Neste Oil Rally Finland and has come to Britain in the hope of gaining more success. Jari-Matti on home ground in 2011 Jari-Matti won 'at home' for Ford last year ... 39 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: