World Champion Sébastien Ogier and team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala deliver a thrilling duel on opening dayJust 6.6 seconds separate Volkswagen Motorsport duo following frenetic fight through the forestsBritish star Kris Meeke embroiled in enthralling podium scrap
Sébastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala set the early pace on Wales Rally GB yesterday (14 November), as treacherous morning conditions caught out a couple of fancied front-runners and captivating battles held fans’ attention right the way down the field.
Overnight rain rendered the mid-Wales stages extremely slippery, and in front of tens of thousands of eager spectators lining the forests, Volkswagen Motorsport star Ogier took full advantage of the more favourable conditions running first on the road to speed into an immediate lead.
The recently-crowned 2014 FIA World Rally Champion was fastest through three of the opening four speed tests – securing VW its 200th WRC stage win with the Polo R WRC on the Gartheiniog 1 curtain-raiser – although team-mate Latvala hit back with a blistering effort through SS3 (Hafren Sweet Lamb 1) to keep the battle truly alive.
Both former Wales Rally GB winners, Ogier and Latvala arrived at the midday service halt in Newtown separated by less than ten seconds, and with the sun shining through for the repeat afternoon loop of stages, their flat-out fight through the forests intensified as the momentum swung back and forth.
The Finn slashed his team-mate’s lead with a scintillating run on Gartheiniog 2, only for the Frenchman to respond immediately by pacing Dyfi 2. Their awe-inspiring commitment – teetering on the absolute brink of adhesion – and spectacular sideways slides thrilled the hordes of onlookers.
Latvala was quickest again through both Hafren Sweet Lamb 2 and Maesnant 2 – atoning for an earlier overshoot on the same stage that cost him five seconds – meaning the gap between the leaders is just 6.6 seconds heading into day two. With four stage wins apiece from the opening day, the scene is set for a battle royale in north Wales.
“I was surprised by the conditions this morning, but the stages were nonetheless beautiful and very enjoyable and I think I had a small advantage running first on the road,” reported rally leader Ogier. “It was more difficult in the afternoon with big ruts and lots of slippery sections.
“Overall I’m happy and it’s always positive to be in the lead, even if the battle with Jari-Matti looks very tight. He won’t stop pushing, of course, and I’m looking forward to Saturday now. I won’t go crazy out there, but if you want to win, you always need to take a few small risks – the fight goes on!”
“I lost a bit of confidence on the gravel in Spain and after we didn’t set a particularly good time on SS1, I attacked a lot harder on SS2 but we had a big moment as there wasn’t as much grip as I had expected,” explained Latvala. “It was a bit ‘all or nothing’, and we hit a big hole and were lucky not to roll or damage the car too much.
“Sébastien always seemed to be better towards the ends of stages, so I need to understand how I’m losing the time there, but generally I’ve been feeling quite relaxed. We reduced the deficit from this morning and it’s good to go into tomorrow with momentum on our side from winning the last two stages of the day.”
Behind the duelling Volkswagen duo, a fascinating scrap is brewing for the final step of the rostrum between Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team’s Mads Østberg, M-Sport World Rally Team ace Mikko Hirvonen – making the final start of his illustrious WRC career this weekend – home hero Kris Meeke and Hyundai Shell World Rally Team’s Thierry Neuville.
A scant 13 seconds covered the evenly-matched quartet at lunchtime – despite Meeke picking up a ten-second penalty for a jump-start on Gartheiniog 1 – and places continued to chop and change throughout the afternoon.
Hirvonen overhauled Østberg for third on Dyfi 2, with Meeke outpacing all three of his immediate rivals on the second run through Maesnant to similarly leapfrog the Norwegian into fourth, just 7.7 seconds adrift of his Finnish adversary. His Citroën team-mate nonetheless remains firmly in podium contention in fifth – a mere seven tenths further in arrears – with Neuville staying in touch in sixth.
“It’s difficult to describe what it was like out there,” remarked Meeke. “It was effectively Rallye Monte-Carlo but on gravel – like driving on cobblestones or black ice at times! There was very little grip available in the morning, although the afternoon was better and we had a good run and were able to set some decent times. I made a mistake and lost a few seconds at the beginning of the last stage, but I’m learning as I go!”
Local favourite Elfyn Evans is doing his best to close the gap in seventh in the second M-Sport World Rally Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC, and on stages that he knows well, the young rookie will be pushing hard to make up ground on Saturday and Sunday.
The overall top ten is currently completed by Fiesta RS WRC drivers Ott Tänak, Henning Solberg – brother of FIA World Rallycross Champion Petter Solberg – and Martin Prokop, with ex-Formula 1 star Robert Kubica 11th in a similar car and Hayden Paddon 12th for Hyundai Motorsport N.
Major casualties of the first day included Volkswagen Motorsport young gun Andreas Mikkelsen – who broke the front-right compression strut on his Polo R WRC after running into a ditch on Dyfi 1 and was forced to retire for the day. On the following stage, Hyundai Shell World Rally Team’s Juho Hänninen similarly fell foul of the unforgiving mid-Wales scenery. Both are expected to re-start under Rally 2 tomorrow.
Evans is not the only Welshman to have shown a solid turn of speed today, with Osian Pryce 15th overall and the leading non-priority driver in his Ford Fiesta R5. Tom Cave is just two spots further down the order in a similar car and fourth in WRC 2, having spent the morning tussling with the top two competitors in the championship.
Mike Faulkner leads the National contest by just over half a minute in his Mitsubishi Evo 9, with cricketing legend Graeme Swann in 83rd place – despite a roll on SS1.
“It’s been an incredible day,” enthused the rallying newcomer. “I was just starting to grow in confidence in the morning, when we hit a rut and the car went into the slowest of slow-motion rolls you’ve ever seen – it was just embarrassing!
“We then stupidly tried to get through the next two stages with a badly cracked windscreen which meant we couldn’t see a thing – we didn’t have a clue where we were going, and had to rely purely on our pace notes.
“Eventually, we had no choice but to kick it out, and being out in the open air like that was great – although not quite so enjoyable when we went splashing through a couple of big puddles!”
Following an evening service stop in Deeside, the high-octane action will resume on Saturday morning with SS9, Clocaenog East 1, at 07.52. Crews will cover a total of 113 competitive kilometres that include the family-friendly Chirk Castle spectator stage and the return of traditional night-time stages with Aberhirnant 2 and Dyfnant 2.
All tickets are still available via the official www.walesrallygb.com