The 2008 World Rally Championship draws to a close this week with the Rally GB, held in the Welsh forests.
All but one of the events 19 speed tests are held on privately-owned gravel tracks, more commonly used either by lorries transporting timber or military vehicles. They are narrow but fast and invite attacking driving, while Friday's opening leg offers the rare challenge of competition in full darkness.
However, it is Britain's unpredictable weather that can make this 15th round of the series so demanding. The hilly forests in south and mid-Wales can be evil in early December if wintry weather takes a firm grip. Tree-lined sections high in the forests contrast with wide open stretches, both on military land and where forestry work has removed the timber. In gloomy weather fog hangs between the trees while throwing a white blanket across exposed areas on higher ground. The gravel surface can be treacherously muddy and early-morning ice or even snow is possible if temperatures plunge.
Britain in early December always presents a spectacular challenge, particularly as the route of the all-gravel event has been significantly modified for this year. For the first time since 2001 competitors will visit the classic stages of mid-Wales such as Sweet Lamb and Myherin on the opening day of the rally, with a remote service halt in the market town of Builth Wells.
Taking place during the first weekend of December, the weather is likely to be a major factor. Rain and fog are a distinct possibility, with an outside chance of snow as well.
The stages held in the early morning and late evening will be run entirely in the dark, providing yet another big trial for the competitors. Good night vision is an essential attribute, as well as the ability to see through fog, which can reduce visibility to fewer than 10 metres in places.
However, one of the most demanding aspects of the event will be the constantly changing levels of grip from the wide variety of gravel surfaces found on the rally. The roads tend to get quickly covered by a layer of mud - but this mud is rarely consistent in the amount of adhesion it offers. Some corners become slippery and insidious, while others can still be taken flat-out.
Thanks to a number of rapid straights and sweeping bends, Rally GB is an extremely quick event, with average speeds on some stages approaching those of the legendary Rally Finland. A number of hazards can catch out drivers who are unaware of the peculiarities of the terrain, so it helps to have accurate pace notes and some local knowledge.
The rally gets underway on Thursday night at 18:00 with a ceremonial start in the Welsh capital of Cardiff. The crews then face 19 stages of dramatic action, before the finish back in Cardiff on Sunday afternoon at 14:56.
FIA World Rally Championship news:
Sebastien Loeb clinched the 2008 drivers' title following his third place finish on the Rally Japan last month.
Loeb has scored 112 points thus far this year and with Mikko Hirvonen ten points behind he cannot be caught. Seb is the first driver to ever win the WRC drivers' title five times - one more than Tommi Makinen and Juha Kankkunen, who both took it on four occasions.