Firecracker finale as Wales Rally GB blasts into life

Thousands of enthusiastic fans pack into Eirias Stadium to catch a glimpse of their rallying heroesCompetitive action gets underway on Friday morning

The excitement has reached fever pitch ahead of Wales Rally GB this weekend (14-16 November), as thousands of spectators crammed into Eirias Stadium in Colwyn Bay last night to witness the spectacular Ceremonial Start.

Free of charge for the public to attend, the activities kicked off with a popular autograph session that enabled fans to grab a signature or ‘selfie’ from their rallying heroes.

In addition to all the current FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) crews, the line-up also included 1981 Champion Ari Vatanen, five-time British Rally Champion Jimmy McRae, legendary co-drivers Nicky Grist and Phil Mills and former cricketing star Graeme Swann, who will be driving a Ford Fiesta R2 on the National event.

More used to hosting high-profile rugby matches and music concerts, tonight, Eirias Stadium reverberated to the sound of 160 high-octane rally cars, as the competing crews crossed the starting ramp to officially begin Wales Rally GB – the eagerly-anticipated finale to what has been a pulsating 2014 WRC campaign.

Taking to the podium in reverse order, the biggest cheers from the throngs of fans packing the grandstands were reserved for leading British contenders Kris Meeke / Paul Nagle (Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team) and Elfyn Evans / Daniel Barritt (M-Sport World Rally Team) – as well as recently-crowned World Champion Sébastien Ogier.

Even after the cars had all been waved off into the night, the colourful ceremony continued with a phenomenal fireworks display – one that will likely only be matched by the thrills n’ spills that are surely in store over the next few days.

Earlier in the day, crews completed the pre-event Shakedown at Clocaenog – scene of four of Saturday’s speed tests. Andreas Mikkelsen set the fastest time, 0.3 seconds faster than team-mates Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala, who tied for second place in a Volkswagen Motorsport top three lock-out.

As he chases his breakthrough WRC victory at the end of his first full campaign at the pinnacle of the sport, the Norwegian admitted that he was pleased to have got off to such a positive start on what he considers his second ‘home’ event.

“Wales Rally GB is where my whole rally story began,” Mikkelsen revealed. “I moved here when I was 17 to get the licence I needed to compete. I actually lived in Ruthin, near where the Shakedown is based! It’s more-or-less a home rally for me, so it’s a great feeling to be back here again.

“The character of the stages is really fast-and-flowing, punctuated by junctions and technical sections. The trickiest part is possibly the weather – conditions can be very changeable and tricky, which makes it a big challenge.

“I think our chances are pretty good; we had a solid run on the Shakedown and seem to be on the pace. The feeling is great; we’ll just need to maintain this level of speed throughout the event and – as ever in rallying – a little bit of luck.”

Former Formula 1 star Robert Kubica was fourth-quickest in his RK M-Sport World Rally Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC, with Ott Tänak fifth in a similar car and British hopes Meeke and Evans equal-sixth, just over a second adrift of the outright benchmark.

“Wales Rally GB is unique – undoubtedly one of the most prestigious events on the WRC calendar,” reflected Northern Irishman Meeke. “The first stage I ever drove was Gartheiniog; I grew up driving on these roads and through these forests, and there really is no substitute for experience here. You need confidence right from the first corner to be able to set fast times, and you need to anticipate grip changes because there are invariably some places that can catch you out.

“There’s always a fantastic atmosphere in the forests; fans camp out there for hours waiting for the cars to come through. I was one of those spectators years ago, watching Colin McRae and Richard Burns, so I have lots of special memories and to be on the other side of the fence now is pretty surreal. I hope we can get a strong result to show our appreciation for all of the fans’ support.”

Making his final WRC start this weekend, M-Sport World Rally Team’s Mikko Hirvonen was eighth-fastest on the Shakedown, with Hyundai Motorsport N’s Hayden Paddon and Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team star Mads Østberg rounding out the top ten.

Wales Rally GB will rev into life in mid-Wales at the crack of dawn on Friday morning, with the first stage (Gartheiniog 1) getting underway at 07.44. The 64 international crews – together with 96 national entrants – will return to north Wales for more high-octane thrills at the weekend, with the winners being celebrated in Llandudno on Sunday afternoon.

All tickets are still available via the official www.walesrallygb.com website or ticket hotline on 0844 847 2251. RallyFest tickets are priced at just £25 for adults and must be purchased in advance. Tickets for Chirk Castle must be booked by 10pm on Friday night (14 November) for collection at the venue on Saturday morning.

Full ticket information as well as detailed Rally Planner are available on the www.walesrallygb.com website.

WALES RALLY GB2014 FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP – ROUND 13

Event Timetable*

Friday 14 November

05:30 Start – Deeside07:44 Gartheiniog 1 (Stage 1)08:14 Dyfi 1 (Stage 2)09:24 Hafren Sweet Lamb 1 (Stage 3)09:58 Maesnant (Stage 4)11:22 Remote Service – Newtown (15 mins)13:03 Gartheiniog 2 (Stage 5)13:33 Dyfi 2 (Stage 6)14:43 Hafren Sweet Lamb 2 (Stage 7)15:17 Maesnant 2 (Stage 8)18:30 Service – Deeside (45 mins)

Saturday 15 November

06:40 Service – Deeside (15 mins)07:52 Clocaenog East 1 (Stage 9)08:08 Clocaenog Main 1 (Stage 10)09:18 Aberhirnant 1 (Stage 11)10:10 Dyfnant 1 (Stage 12)12:00 Chirk Castle (Stage 13)13:33 Service – Deeside (30 mins)15:00 Clocaenog East 1 (Stage 14)15:16 Clocaenog Main 1 (Stage 15)16:26 Aberhirnant 1 (Stage 16)17:18 Dyfnant 1 (Stage 17)19:59 Service – Deeside (45 mins)

Sunday 16 November

07:05 Service – Deeside (15 mins)08:33 iRobot Brenig 1 (Stage 18)09:00 Alwen 1 (Stage 19)09:55 Kinmel Park 1 (Stage 20)10:04 Kinmel Park 2 (Stage 21)10:51 Alwen 2 (Stage 22)12:00 iRobot Brenig 2 ‘Power Stage’ (Stage 23)13:19 Ceremonial Finish – Mostyn Street, Llandudno

* All times are for the first car and subject to change