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.

Special notes:

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.

However in the Manufacturers' championship it is still all to play for and the Citroen Total WRT will take an 11 point cushion over BP Ford Abu Dhabi into Rally GB.

Since the last event there have been a number of developments, although probably the most significant and newsworthy was Sebastien Loeb's F1 test at the Circuit de Catalunya in Spain with the Red Bull Racing F1 team.

Intended as a 'thank-you' by mutual sponsor Red Bull for winning the WRC drivers' title in the 'Land of the Rising Sun', Loeb completed 82 laps in total, his best a 1 minute 22.503 seconds, which left him eighth overall on the unofficial timesheets - just two tenths slower than Robert Kubica and quicker than the likes of Nelson Piquet Jr, Adrian Sutil and Christian Klein.

News from the Manufacturers' teams:

Citroen Total WRT:

[Sebastien Loeb, car #1 and Daniel Sordo, car #2]

Sebastien Loeb:

"I've hardly had time to catch my breath since Japan. The Wales Rally GB is an event I enjoy. The atmosphere is always very special, especially on the stages run in semi-darkness. The terrain is also highly specific, and never easy. The muddy conditions can produce differing levels of grip from one corner to the next, while other portions can be impressively fast and technically challenging, especially given how little grip there is - when there is grip! It's a rally I've never won - for a variety of reasons - and I would dearly like to win it one day. That probably won't be our priority this time round, however. Winning the Manufacturers' title is important for Citroen and we will do all we can to make that happen. That will mean defending our current eleven-point lead, steering clear of all the pitfalls and finishing as close to our rivals as we can."

Dani Sordo:

"We will be trying harder than ever to score a top result in Wales. I haven't got all that much experience of this event, but that doesn't stop me from being something of a fan. It's such a varied rally and the stages aren't too tough on the cars. What I dislike the most however is the fog. At night, when the only thing you can see in front of you is a white wall, it really isn't easy. It takes a big effort to push yourself to go faster. On top of that, if you add rain or even snow into the equation, then it's nothing short of a nightmare. But that's what makes it such a legendary event! Winning the Manufacturers' title [for Citroen] in Wales would be the best reward I can think of."

BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT:

[Mikko Hirvonen, car #3 and Jari-Matti Latvala, car #4 and Khalid Al Qassimi, car #19]

Mikko Hirvonen:

"Some parts of the rally are very fast, even quicker than in Finland. The difference is that the fast parts here don't last long because there are usually hairpin bends that bring the speeds down again. The nature of the roads changes more than in Finland. Last year was probably the toughest Rally GB I have ever driven. Driving in darkness in fog and rain was incredibly difficult. Night driving makes the rally even trickier, because this is the only round where we drive in the dark apart from Japan and Monte Carlo. It's something I will practise during my test this weekend. I feel confident and think we have a good chance of a 1-2 finish and if we can do that I hope it's enough to win the title for Ford."

Jari-Matti Latvala:

"I regard this as my second home rally. I drove many rallies here in 2002 and 2003 and I'm familiar with the nature of the roads. It's a classic rally and one that I would really like to win. The mid-Wales stages will be new to many drivers but I have something in my memory of those roads from those seasons. They are high on the hills and quite open, but enjoyable to drive.

"When it's dark and gloomy in Wales, then it's incredibly dark. If it rains the roads become very muddy and conditions can be really difficult. Night driving is specialised so it was important for me to test in the dark and get used to driving with the extra lights we fit to the car. Fog is probably the most difficult weather in which to drive, especially if it's dark as well. A driver needs to feel confident with the pace notes, be brave and rely heavily on the co-driver. If the notes are not precise enough then it's easy to lose confidence quickly. On the other hand, a good performance in those conditions can gain a lot of time."

Khalid Al Qassimi:

"This will be my GB debut and I had a two-day test last week to get used to the conditions. I don't like wet weather rallies so it will be hard to adjust to. It's easy to slide, spin or go off in those conditions. The test was important because driving on mud in the forests helped me find my pace. This is my last event of a long year, my first full season. It's gone well and I feel I'm progressing better than last year. After 10 events this year, I feel I'm part of the team on merit. I've gained extra mileage, extra confidence, achieved some good results and generally lifted my pace. I've made many changes to my notes and all the time I'm developing my knowledge and experience."

Subaru WRT:

[Petter Solberg, car #5 and Chris Atkinson, car #6]

Petter Solberg:

"I like the rally a lot and we're normally fast when it's foggy or raining with lots of mud so I'm looking forward to it. I think pace notes play a huge part here. It's about perfection with the notes and the way Phil gives them and helps with judging distances when visibility is poor. That's where he is very strong. In the past we've generally always been fighting for a win or fighting at the top here. We had some good speed on Saturday and Sunday in Japan which gives us a positive going into GB. There are still a few little things we need to work on for sure, but there was another small improvement with the car in the last test."

Chris Atkinson:

"GB is one of the trickiest rallies and one that takes probably a few years to get used to, but last year we had some good speed there. I'm still cautious as it's hard to know after a one day test where you really stand and we've got a few things still to sort out, but if you have confidence you can go a long way in the tricky conditions. Especially this year with some new stages I think confidence is the most important thing. It's obviously quite difficult driving in fog, and there's a fair chance of it being icy as well so they'll be some of the most tricky and unpredictable conditions we've driven in. We'll go there with the strategy that we'll drive as fast as we can from the start, as we always do. I don't think only having a remote service on the first day will have much impact on that strategy though as if you have a problem on any rally you're usually out of the running anyway."

For more see Part 2 of our preview for the Wales Rally GB.



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