WRC 2006: Wales Rally GB - Preview
As the Subaru World Rally Team heads to south Wales this weekend for Rally GB, it is preparing not only for the final challenge of the season, but also one of the toughest events on the calendar. The varied nature of the gravel stages and the traditionally unsettled Welsh weather makes the rally notoriously difficult to prepare for. Historically it has been an event where the Subaru World Rally Team has been strong. In all, Subaru has taken nine wins in the last 11 occasions on which Rally GB has been part of the WRC (it was not part of the 1996 championship).
For the last two years Rally GB has taken place in September, but the shift back to a winter date increases the possibility of ice, fog, mud - and even snow. It has been unseasonably dry in the area in recent weeks, but rain is forecast in the days prior to the event and that could drastically alter the nature of the stages.
The later date means less daylight hours in the UK and rally organisers have made several changes to the route to compensate for the shorter days. The first stage of the rally, Port Talbot, is a revised version of the former Margam stage. Together with Resolfen and Rheola it forms the opening loop of stages which are run twice on Friday. Resolfen features many surface changes and takes the crews high up Rhigos Mountain, so fog could be a factor during the first run through the stage on Friday morning. Rheola is no place for a mistake: it is fast, but contains some huge, intimidating drops off the side of the road. The stage also includes the fan-friendly Walters Arena section near the end.
While leg one takes place in the undulating valleys of south Wales, the crews travel north to the fringes of the Brecon Beacons for leg two. It includes two runs through a trio of well-known tests: Crychan, Halfway and Epynt, before the day ends with the 1.1km Cardiff Super Special held inside the Millennium Stadium. An estimated 25,000 spectators will get some respite from the harsh winter weather under the stadium's retractable roof.
The third and final leg comprises two runs through Brechfa and Trawscoed, although this year the drivers will tackle the stages in the opposite direction compared to 2005. These two long stages take place on a hard-packed surface, but while the former test is fast and features some long, cambered corners, the latter is much tighter and strewn with hairpins.
The overall competitive distance is 356km and the first car is due onto the finish ramp inside the Millennium Stadium at 15.41 (local time) on Sunday 3 December.
The Subaru World Rally Team will enter two cars in Wales Rally GB, one Impreza WRC2006 for Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and the other for Chris Atkinson (co-driven by Glenn Macneall). The 2003 world champion has won in Wales four times and took his first World Rally Championship victory on the event with Subaru in 2002. Chris completed the Rally GB recce in 2004 to gain experience and made his competitive debut in the Welsh forests last year.
Petter Solberg: "It's going to be a big attack from the first metre of the rally: it's as simple as that. It's the final round of the championship and there's nothing to lose. I hope it will be good old-fashioned Rally GB weather, with lots of mud on the stages. Those would be the best conditions for me. Our tyres have always been very competitive on the event and the team has lots of experience of how to deal with the tricky conditions. We always have a lot of support on the rally, especially with Phil [Mills] living close by, so it would be fantastic to end the year with a good finish."
Chris Atkinson: "I contested Rally GB for the first time last season, but with the date change I'm expecting conditions to be quite different this year. Last year there was a little bit of mud at the start, but the stages were dry on the second leg. This year there will probably be ice and fog, which will make it tricky. It won't be a completely new experience, because I've done winter rallies in places like Tasmania, where the conditions were similar. Some of the Rally GB stages are new, and that could level the playing field for me because the more experienced drivers will be learning the route too. We've had some good speed at certain points of the last two rallies, so now we're working on trying to find that pace for an entire event."
The Car / The Challenge
Subaru World Rally Sporting Director, Luis Moya: "The change of date could make the conditions very difficult. It is not just the possibility of snow and ice, but also fog. If it is foggy, it is particularly hard on the drivers, because you can't afford to make any mistakes. If you go off the road in the Welsh forests, you stay off, because the ditches are very big. There are plenty of hazards on the stages. You can cut some corners, but you have to be one hundred per cent certain that you know what you're cutting. You have to be very careful. We know that our Pirelli tyres have always performed well and our record on the rally is very good, so we can feel quite confident of a good result. But that doesn't necessarily mean we are going to win; what we have to make sure is that the car is strong and reliable from the start. Another focus for this event is to make the car strong for next year and everybody in the team has been working incredibly hard to achieve that. It has been a tough season, but this sport goes in cycles and there will be a moment when we are able to challenge for victory again. We just have to be patient and stay focused."
Between the Rallies
It was just as well that Petter and Chris had a relaxing break between the WRC events in Australia and New Zealand, because there's been no let up for either driver since they flew back to the northern hemisphere. At the moment they are in the middle of a four-day gravel tyre test in mid-Wales. The test finishes on Sunday and the drivers will stay in Swansea to prepare for their recce of the Rally GB stages on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week.