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CARDIFF - Ford World Rally Team enters this week’s new-look Wales Rally GB (13 - 16 September) bidding to add to its long list of successes in one of the sport’s classic events. The Blue Oval has claimed the top step of the podium on 10 occasions since the launch of the FIA World Rally Championship in 1973, a record unmatched by any other manufacturer.
Current drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Petter Solberg are also no strangers to the winners’ laurels in Britain. Latvala and co-driver Miikka Anttila will defend their 2011 victory when they won by almost four minutes in a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car, and Solberg, co-driven now by Chris Patterson, took four consecutive victories from 2002 to 2005.
Fiesta RS WRCs filled eight of the top nine places in 2011, but the 2012 event will be very different from last year’s encounter. Traditionally the final round of the championship in November, its hallmarks are rain, fog, ice and snow. However, a September date promises more benign conditions and this could be the fastest Rally GB ever.
Cardiff, capital city of Wales and located on the south coast, has been the rally base since 2000. The action takes place over narrow but fast gravel forest speed tests further north, more commonly used by lorries transporting timber.
Tree-lined tracks in the hilly woods contrast with wide-open sections on exposed military land, and log piles frequently line the roads ready to trap the unwary. The roads can become rutted during the second pass with exposed rocks presenting another hazard.
As well as their victories, both Fiesta RS WRC drivers bring a wealth of experience to the rally. Finland’s Latvala began his career in Britain and has more starts in this event than any other WRC round. This will be his 11th appearance. Solberg first competed in Rally GB in 1998 and this will be the 37-year-old Norwegian’s 15th start.
“I enjoy driving on narrow, fast, flowing roads like these and it’s one of my favourite rallies,” said 27-year-old Latvala. “We’re used to winter conditions here so if it stays dry then the characteristics of the event will change considerably. In dry weather the roads will give good grip and speeds will be high.
“One of the big decisions will be tyre selection. In the dry we should use Michelin’s hard compound rubber, especially as the surface in some forests is abrasive. But the allocation we’re allowed means we can’t do that for the entire rally, so it will be tricky to know when to use soft tyres and when to use harder rubber.
“In winter it’s important to identify muddy sections. If it’s drier it’s not necessary to pay so much attention to the surface, but I’ll need to concentrate harder in corners because the car will carry more speed. Logs are another hazard in Britain. They are often piled high on the side of the road and clipping one can break the suspension and end the day immediately,” added Latvala.
Solberg admitted that Rally GB was one of his pre-season targets for a strong result. “I’ve been very successful in Britain during my career and it’s a rally that suits me. I enjoy the forest tracks because they’re fast and a good challenge. You have to use the whole road – and sometimes a bit more – to keep the speed high,” he said.
“Accurate pace notes are important because overhanging branches often prevent a clear view of the road. The earlier date this year will obviously make a difference and I expect the roads will be faster and rougher in places. That could also make it tougher for the tyres.
“The team has worked hard since the last gravel round in Finland to unlock more speed. We were surprised at the pace of that rally and our priority is to ensure we are up there and challenging for a win,” added Solberg.
* Michelin’s Latitude Cross gravel tyres will be used by the Ford drivers, and will be available in both soft and hard compounds. Drivers have a choice of 30 soft tyres and 22 hard tyres, and a total of 35 can be used during the event. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the tyres and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Six crews will compete in privately-run Fiesta RS WRCs. Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk and Evgeny Novikov / Ilka Minor are nominated by M-Sport Ford World Rally Team. The team has also entered Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin and Jan Habig / Robbie Durant. Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson represent Adapta World Rally Team and Martin Prokop / Zdeněk Hrůza crew the Czech Ford National Team car.
* The team completes a three-day test in northern England today. Latvala drove on Wednesday and Thursday, with the first day being a development session before moving to specific pre-Rally GB work yesterday. Solberg is at the wheel today (Friday).
* Solberg will display a Fiesta RS WRC at CarFest North at Cholmondeley Castle in north-west England this weekend. The two-day festival on Saturday and Sunday (8 - 9 September) will raise money for the BBC Children In Need charity.
After a year when the route leaned more towards north and mid-Wales, the 80th anniversary rally has an increased emphasis on the south again. The main service park returns to Cardiff and the most northerly stages have been dropped. However, Llandudno, on the northern tip of Wales, continues to host Thursday evening’s start ceremony. Competitors then head south for an opening day in mid-Wales, with a remote service zone in Newtown. The second leg is based near Brecon, before ending with a short speed test at the Celtic Manor resort, host to golf’s Ryder Cup in 2010. The final day brings the return of stages in south Wales which were not used last year, before the finish in Cardiff on Sunday afternoon. Drivers tackle 19 stages covering 324.92km in a route of 1604.05km.