Rally GB has a long standing history which dates back to the 1930’s where competitors of the Royal Automobile Club would take part in a series of auto tests and navigational challenges which formed part of a very different event to that of what we see today. In the 1960’s forest roads were introduced, this would transform the event into one of the toughest off road automotive challenges which the world’s best drivers experience today. This year was the 75th running of the event which formed Round 12 of the 2019 FIA World Rally Championships.
With its rally HQ based in Llandudno and returning to Forests of North and Mid Wales, the event offered up some 309km of competitive action spread across 22 stages. Wales Rally GB once again delivered a thrilling instalment contributing to the ongoing exciting close fought World Rally Championships title battle.
Britain’s Kris Meeke in his Toyota Yaris topped the timing sheets on the Thursday mornings short 4.68km Shakedown test in the Gwydir Forest complex. Meeke was about a second ahead of local lad Elfyn Evans, who had made his return to the seat of the M-Sport Ford Fiesta following a three rally break after suffering a back injury in July. That night the crews departed the start ramp from Liverpool’s City centre to tackle a new spectator super special stage at Oulton Park race circuit on the boarder of England and Wales; where Kris Meeke set the pace by beating Belgians Thierry Neuville in the leading Hyundai i20.
The first full day of the event started before sunrise in the Elsi stage near Betws-Y-Coed and finished in the dark of Aberhirnant near Bala. With 9 stages covering 120km to contend with, it was Welshman Elfyn Evans who opened up the day with a stage win. Being out of the seat for a number of rally’s would have no doubt affected Elfyn’s confidence; however, with his local knowledge and experience of the conditions out on the stages, he would have no doubt have been aiming to fight for at least a podium on this, his home event. Unfortunately for Evans a near miss on the second stage of the morning nearly put him out of the rally altogether. A lucky escape in Penmachno had resulted in damaged suspension and dropped him down to 12th. This section of the stage would later put Finland’s Jari-Matti Latvala out of the rally with a roll.
Current championship leader and perhaps the 2019 title favourite Ott Tӓnak, was first on the road and eager to get his first Welsh win and it wasn’t long before he got to grips with the conditions that are synonymous with Wales Rally GB. Posting his first stage win of the event on SS3, Penmachno, where the weather had closed in, he followed that up with another in the very next stage, SS4 Dyfnant; to move into second overall behind his Toyota team-mate, Kris Meeke.
The final stage of the mornings loop, SS5 Aberhirnant had to be abandon after the top ten runners had passed; this was due to a number of spectators compromising safety. Finland’s Jari-Matti Latvala posted the exact same fastest time as Elfyn Evans and this moved Latvala up into third; overtaking his team-mate Ott Tӓnak who hadn’t had a very good run in this stage.
The Northern Irishman, Kris Meeke had put in a consitent drive in his Toyota Yaris after the mornings loop to lead the rally by 6 seconds ahead of Hyundias Thierry Neuville.
“We’re happy and the Yaris is working really well.”
Back out after the mid day service and the weather was the complete opposite to the morning; the sun was out and Citroёns Sébastien Ogier thought it was about time that he stood up and was counted. Ogier opened up the afternoons loop with his first stage win on the event, the second run through the Elsi stage.
This stage win bumpped Ogier up from 5th to 3rd and just over a second away from Neuville in second yet crucially ahead of Championship leader Tӓnak.
“It’s good – the first time during the day that we are in front of him. It’s tough to be honest, it’s rough and we had quite a few impacts so I was not completely comfortable.”
Ogier was now finally seeing a chance to challenge for the win and appeared fired up. This spurred him on to not only win the next stage, Penmachno 2, but turn his 1 second deficit to Neuville into a 3.9 second lead over him, taking second place overall. Neuville re-acted to Ogier in SS8 by winning the very short Slate Mountain stage, but it was too short to make any difference to the overall leader board.
Ott Tӓnak had noticed both of his championship rivals scrapping it out for second and had no option but put his foot down in an attempt to put together some sort of challenge. Despite having technical glitches with his lights, he did just that in the final two stages of the day. In the dusk of SS9 Dyfnant 2 and the dark of SS10 Aberhirnant 2, he strung together two stage wins to end Leg 1 at the top of the leader board with a lead of 3.4 seconds ahead of the Frenchman Ogier in the Citroёn C3.
In the WRC2Pro battle, Skoda’s Kalle Rovanperӓ was looking to sow up the title here in Wales. Despite having slightly more competition, not just from the usual group consisting of Greensmith, Kopecký and Ostberg; but also joined by Kiwi Haydon Paddon who was out in an M-Sport run Fiesta R5.
Not to be deterred by the competition, Rovanperӓ won 4 out of the 9 stages and lead right up until the last two night stages of the day; where team-mate Jan Kopecký benefited from Rovanperӓ’s puncture in SS9 Dyfnant to take the lead.
The second leg of the event ventured a little further south into Mid Wales for the longest section of the rally. With more than 150km across seven stages, crews had to tackle this “Super Saturday” with no mid-day service. The day kicked off with a 25km run through Dyfi forest which was literally right on the door step of Elfyn Evan’s family home in Dolgellau, so there was no real surprise that he won this stage.
Evans, now starting to recover his drive from his previous days “big moment”, would continue heading in the right direction on the epic Myherin stage where he would net another stage win and climb from 8th to 6th on the leader board.
This truly classic Welsh stage has been a play ground for the current crop of WRC drivers for some time now and has a number of variants to its route. Its wide fast and flowing roads head up into the openness amongst the wind farms before dropping down into the infamous “Pikes Peak” section which made its return to the route this year.
The stage does have the ability to catch the World’s best out every now and then and this year it was the turn of Irishman, Craig Breen.
Breen who had landed his second drive of the season for the Hyundai team would come a cropper, rolling the i20 in style. However, it was a case of “Luck of the Irish” as the section where he rolled, just so happened to be soft and boggy. Only superficial damaged was incurred and once back on the road, he was able to continue on his way.
As the rally would reach its mid-point, Evans completed his mornings efforts by adding the Sweet Lamb Hafren stage win to his timecard, making it a clean sweep of stage wins for him. Whilst upfront, Tӓnak led both Ogier and Neuville before heading to Newtown for the mid day re-group.
For the afternoon’s activities, Thierry Neuville would take up the challenge of overhauling Ogier. Neuville added his second stage win of the event in the repeated run of Myherin. Beating rally leader Tӓnak by just 0.7 seconds here and by following that up with a third fastest time on SS15 Sweet Lamb Hafren 2, it enabled him to overtake Ogier.
Neuville won the last proper forest stage of the leg, SS16 Dyfi 2, to increase the gap between him and Ogier before they headed up to Colwyn Bay for a short spectator friendly street stage. Ott Tӓnak won that final blast along the sea front to end the day with an 11 second lead over Neuville.
In the WRC2Pro category, Kalle Rovanperӓ was back on top regaining the lead from Skoda team-mate Jan Kopecký after only the first stage of the day. Haydon Paddon was finally settling into to his R5 Fiesta and knocked up a couple of stage wins in the morning. However, he was never really going to be in the fight following his dismal opening day on the Friday; but at least he was still going and showing some pace.
Rovanperӓ strung together a further three stage wins in the afternoon to end the day with more than four and half minutes lead over Kopecký, who managed to roll his Fabia R5 car on SS15 Sweet Lamb Hafren. This set the final day up for the young Fin perfectly where all he would have to do is bring it home for not only the Rally victory but the WRC2Pro title.
On the final day of the event, the planned 5 stages were reduced to 4 as the blast around the Asphalt of the Great Orme stage was cancelled for Health and Safety reasons due to poor weather conditions. Ott Tӓnak set off from Llandudno with an 11 second lead over Neuville knowing that nothing short of the rally win would suffice.
Both Neuville and Ogier were to give it their all, but in reality they were too far behind to really challenge for the win. Unless of course Tӓnak was to either make a mistake or the Yaris was to falter, then it was looking like the Estonian was heading for the top spot on the podium. Tӓnak narrowly beat Neuville by just 0.1 of a second on the opening stage of the morning, SS 18 Alwen.
Neuville did get the better of Tӓnak on SS19 Brenig but they were both beaten by Elfyn Evans who was to gain 5th place from Andreas Mikkelsen. As the crews left service for the last time, all that stood in the way of Tӓnak and lifting the coveted Rally GB trophy was a little under 17km over the final two stages.
Evans took the penultimate stage win of the rally, SS21 Alwen 2, beating Neuville by 0.9 seconds. This took his total of stage wins across the entire event up to an impressive seven. Neuville was the second fastest on all of the stages of the day up until this point and although he would only ever so slightly edge closer to the rally leader Tӓnak, he would at least be keeping Ogier at bay behind him in third.
The final stage of the event, SS22 Brenig 2, The Power Stage was a short 6.43km stage which ran alongside the Llyn Brenig Reservoir. The stage on which Welshman Elfyn Evans won the 2017 event, his first ever World Rally would now see him finish in 5th place overall on the 2019 edition of his home event.
Evans who had missed the past three events after suffering a back injury from taking part in Rally Estonia back in July delivered a strong performance with limited seat time under his belt. Perhaps if his moment on the Friday morning hadn’t have happened, then he may well have ended up on the podium, but for sure, 7 stage wins is a decent result in Wales under his circumstances.
“There is no room for these what ifs in rallying at this level. A big shame, the pace was good all weekend which is nice; nonetheless it would have been nice to be higher up.”
Ahead of Evans in 4th was fellow Brit Kris Meeke, Meeke who had led for much of the first half of the rally had also put in a strong performance. Meeke handed over the lead of the rally to his team mate in the darkness of Saturday’s final stage.
Despite only getting the single stage win on the opening night at Oulton Park, Meeke’s level head saw him bring it home in 4th for important manufacturers points; which keeps Toyota close enough to Hyundai in the Manufactures Championship.
“I probably wanted a bit more this weekend – our pace was good on Friday but we fell back a bit on Saturday”
Entering the Power Stage with a 13.8 second gap between himself and second place man Thierry Neuville was Sébastien Ogier. The five times winner of Wales Rally GB could only look to gain some bonus power stage points, as he had pretty much settled for the third spot on the podium on this final days action.
Ogier who missed out on the top Power Stage points by just half a second did manage to get ahead of Neuville on Friday afternoon by winning two stages. Unfortunately Neuville’s never give up attitude enabled him to get the better of Ogier and had earned him the runners up spot on Saturday afternoon.
“The Power Stage sums up our weekend in many ways: we have been a couple of tenths back throughout the rally. We tried our best and gave it absolutely everything, but we were just a bit short of performance whilst Ott had a super weekend. It’s not a great result for us in terms of the championship with just two rounds to go, but we’re going to keep fighting tooth and nail for as long as it remains possible mathematically to win the title.”
Neuville picked up a single bonus power stage point which was nice but this along with his 18 points for a second place finish was still not enough to overtake Ogier in the driver standings.
“We could not have given any more, from the very first stage, it was a tough fight in some tricky conditions and incredibly close. We can be happy with our own performance but I’m disappointed about the final result.”
Skoda’s Kalle Rovanperӓ did not need to push for any stage wins on the final day of the event. With a sizable lead over the rest of the WRC2Pro field; all that was needed was to cruise home for the victory and to secure the 2019 WRC2Pro Title. The young talent from Finland led for all but two stages of the rally and there wasn’t really any doubt that he would not only win the event but would bring home the title in Wales with two rounds still remaining.
Having led the rally from late Saturday evening, Estonian Ott Tӓnak had finally won Wales Rally GB. After the heart break of the event last year when he bottomed out of the lead following a jump in the Sweet Lamb stage; which no doubt dented his shot at the 2018 title, he now perhaps has one hand on the title.
Tӓnak for the fourth time this year scored maximum points on a rally, taking not only the rally win by beating Neuville by almost 11 seconds, but by taking the top bonus power stage points also to extend his championship lead over rival and defending World Champ Ogier. With only two rounds to go, Tӓnak has a 28 point lead and although it is still mathematically possible for Neuville to win, it is unlikely. Perhaps Ogier is the only man who could potentially get in Tӓnaks way of winning his first World Rally Championship title.
“It was a really intense, long, and difficult battle, but I’m happy to have won. The team did everything to prepare the car for this rally, I am extremely grateful to all the members. At this moment in time, nothing has been decided. I have to work harder and continue to attack.”
Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT still lead the Manufacturers race but Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT have edged a little closer. With only 8 points between the two teams, the final two rally’s will prove to be crucial for all drivers to score big points as the fight continues on into Rally RACC Catalunya.
Words & Photos By: Andy Cook – Copyright © 2019 Xlerate.net