Four-time Rally GB winner Petter Solberg showed his rivals a clean pair of heels on the shakedown run for this year's event, by going quickest of all as he bids to throw a spoiler into Sébastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen's World Rally Championship (WRC) title fight with a fifth victory on British shores.
The four-hour shakedown was conducted on a 4.95km gravel stage in Margam Park, 40 miles from the rally's Cardiff base and in typically cold and wet conditions a world away from the dry pre-event reconnaissance run – throwing an extra challenge into the mix for competitors, with slippery and muddy roads to cope with.
Citroën Junior Team star Solberg set his best time on his final run, and the 2003 WRC Champion afterwards professed himself in buoyant spirits, optimistic about his prospects on what will be his first loose-surface rally in the C4 WRC – and confident that he has his best opportunity to shine on the event in years.
“We stalled on our first run,” the 34-year-old – who last triumphed in Wales back in 2005 – told the official WRC website, “but the car worked very well and we were on the pace even with that. Then we made some small changes, but on the last run we went back to the set-up we had found on our pre-event test and it felt fine. I'm happy to have found this feeling so quickly in this car.
“The weather won't change my plans. In fact, this is good news. I haven't tested in wet conditions with this car, so I was quite pleased to try it in the mud. I'm feeling very positive about my chances this weekend; I know it will be very tough, but I will try and fight for a victory – that would be great. I will push hard – maybe not on the first stage – but once I get into a rhythm I'll be attacking.”
The Norwegian's closest adversary on the shakedown was Rally d'Italia Sardegna winner Jari-Matti Latvala in the BP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS WRC at two tenths of a second adrift, with the elder Solberg – Henning – third-quickest in his Stobart-run Focus. The two protagonists for the crown, meanwhile, came in fifth and equal seventh, with Loeb narrowly getting the edge to strike the first blow in their duel for glory.
“It was okay, but the conditions were very difficult,” recounted the Frenchman. “There was a lot of rain and mud around, and the road was very narrow so it was difficult to find the rhythm – perhaps this is the most difficult stage of the rally!
“It wasn't very representative of the stages of the rally, but after a dry recce the conditions are likely to have changed a bit anyway. We won't know exactly where the tricky places will be and where the grip has changed. We have a good feeling in the car, though. We will keep the same set-up we found on the test and we'll have to see. I think Mikko will be fast straightaway tomorrow, so I'm ready to go flat from the start as well.
“I think we have done some good tests and a good recce, but I know it's a tricky rally and Hirvonen is very fast on these kind of events. For sure, it will be an interesting final to the championship and I hope we can win. One of us will be very happy and the other will be very disappointed at the end of the weekend, but that's the nature of the sport.”
“The car felt good,” added his Finnish rival, who undertook just a single run through the stage to Loeb's three. “In fact, everything looks really good. A bit of rain is okay for me; it would help with my position as first on the road tomorrow, but the roads are so dry underneath that I don't expect they will change too much.”
Shakedown times – Top 10:
1. Petter Solberg
PS WRT Citroën C4 WRC 03mins 16.4secs
2. Jari-Matti Latvala
BP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS WRC 03mins 16.6secs
3. Henning Solberg
Stobart VK Ford Focus WRC 03mins 18.2secs
4. Sébastien Ogier
Citroën Junior Team C4 WRC 03mins 19.0secs
5. Sébastien Loeb
Citroën Total WRT C4 WRC 03mins 19.6secs
6. Dani Sordo
Citroën Total WRT C4 WRC 03mins 19.7secs
7=. Mikko Hirvonen
BP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS WRC 03mins 21.9secs
7=. Mads Ostberg
Subaru Impreza WRC 09 03mins 21.9secs
9. Khalid Al Qassimi
BP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS WRC 03mins 24.3secs
10. Conrad Rautenbach
Citroën Junior Team C4 WRC 03mins 26.1secs