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."

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally team:

[Francois Duval, car #7 and Matthew Wilson, car #8. Plus Henning Solberg, car #14, Barry Clark, car #20, Steve Perez car #23, Dave Weston, car #24 and Valentino Rossi, car #46]

Francois Duval:

"I'm looking forward to returning to Rally GB because I have had some good results here in the past. Denis [Giraudet] has come in as my replacement co-driver for this rally and I am very thankful to him for this gesture because I think it will help my confidence a lot in my first rally since Japan. I am going to head to the first stage and take it step by step from there. This rally can be very difficult especially if the conditions turn bad and this can have a big influence on the results. I think with the new stages on Friday and the fact I have not done this event since 2006, that it will be very important to get a good set of notes from recce."

Matthew Wilson:

"The plan for GB is to go as quick as possible from the start and try and match the result from last year, if not better it. It is interesting to have some new stages on the Friday and this will spice things up a bit for the opening day. I guess the only down side is that while this is the event we have most experience of, the new stages and the reversed stages from 2007 will mean we'll have to write entirely new notes but this is going to be the same for everybody and for me it's good to have lots of experience of what the conditions will be like. It's a strong field as well but I'm feeling very confident ahead of this one and I think we will know a lot more about the route after recce."

Henning Solberg:

"This year seems like it has gone very quickly and now here we are at the final round of the season. I have done GB a lot of times before but never quite managed to pick up a good result so I will try my best to change that this year. I like the stages in GB and I will try my best on this event and drive as fast as I can. The roads can be difficult at GB but this is my eighth time here so I know what to expect from them. The Focus has been great all year and I have had an especially good felling on gravel."

Barry Clark:

"This is my fourth WRC event of the season and one I have been waiting all year for because it will be on some familiar territory. It's great to be competing under the Stobart banner here in GB and I look forward to competing with some top class team mates who I will be able to learn from. The first day there are some classic stages which I am really looking forward to and hopefully if it stays dry and the conditions consistent, we can put in a quick pace from the start."

Suzuki WRT:

[Toni Gardemeister, car #11 and Per-Gunnar Andersson, car #12]

Toni Gardemeister:

"Britain is a fantastic rally, but so difficult. It's very fast, which I like, and the stages are really interesting. Anything can happen on this rally, so a bit like Japan this is a very good opportunity for us. Reliability will be important but we have managed to achieve this since the middle of the season and we had another good result in Japan, so there's no reason why we can't do the same again. It's definitely possible for us to score some good points in Britain, and that is what we will be aiming to do from the start."

P-G Andersson:

"You really need so much commitment to do well on this rally! The two big hazards are the weather and the surfaces. But I love the challenge, and our strong run in Japan three weeks ago has given us all a lot of confidence. The main thing in Great Britain is to stay out of trouble, but we've learnt a lot this year so I think we should be able to pace ourselves properly in order to get to the finish in the best possible position. I'm really looking forward to it."

Production Car WRC:

Round 8 of 8 - Title decider.

Mitsubishi's Juho Hanninen will go into the Rally GB favourite to take the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship title.

Hanninen took the maximum ten points in Japan last month and now enjoys a six point lead over Andreas Aigner, the only other person still in contention for the P-WRC crown.

"Of course Andreas Aigner is quick but I have been two times to Wales Rally GB and I like it very much," said Hanninen post-Japan. "I will need to push to the maximum and I just need to get the right result."

Aigner is aware that the odds are against him and as such he is planning to go for broke: "There's nothing left to do for me but to go on an all-out attack from the very start," confirmed the Austrian.

"But of course I'm at a disadvantage with Hanninen because I haven't competed in a rally for quite a long time - whereas he's match fit. This could be seen in Japan recently, where he was way back in the early stages, but then clinched the win after all. That's how he got into this very good starting position of his."

In total 25 runners will be able to score P-WRC points, with the likes of Jari Ketomaa, Martin Prokop, Patrik Sandell, Fumio Nutahara and Armindo Araujo all likely to figure strongly.

There are also a number of 'guest' entrants, including BRC regulars Guy Wilks, Mark Higgins and his brother David.

Indeed six of the P-WRC runners will be able to score points in the Tesco 99 Octane MSA British Rally Championship - with Hanninen, Flodin and Eyvind Brynildsen also eligible.

Martin Rauam meanwhile will not compete due to economic reasons and his place will be taken by Egon Kaur. Darren Gass will also miss the round after sustaining an injury. He was due to compete for points in the BRC and the P-WRC.

Other significant entries:

80 plus crews due to start.

Around 85 crews are due to start the Wales Rally GB and amongst them there are no fewer than 21 WRC cars, with five of the manufacturer teams represented; the Munchi's Ford team not taking part in the Welsh forests.

Away from the manufacturer teams, Conrad Rautenbach and Sebatien Ogier will be at the wheel of semi-privateer Citroen C4s, while Mads Ostberg, Eamonn Boland and Gareth Jones will run Subaru Imprezas.

MotoGP star Valentino Rossi also returns to Rally GB in an M-Sport run Focus WRC supporting the BBC Children in Need appeal. He will be one of seven entries under the Stobart banner.

Of the rest, as well as the 25 crews in the P-WRC, another 39 will also take in the round.

17 will be eligible to score points in the Tesco 99 Octane MSA British Rally Championship with three drivers - David Higgins, Mark Higgins and Guy Wilks - still in contention for the title. WRGB is also the final round of the Fiesta SportingTrophy International.

Urmo Aava - who was due to compete in a Citroen C4 WRC - has had to withdraw his entry.

Route:

Although the rally remains based in south Wales, major changes take competitors back to the classic mid-Wales forests of Hafren and Myherin for the first time in eight years. As a result the Brechfa Forest tests have been dropped. The start and finish remains in Cardiff with the service park again in Swansea's marina area, 70km away. The new mileage forms the bulk of the opening day, with two short spectator friendly tests at Walters Arena in Rheola Forest completing the action.

Saturday mixes the long Resolfen test in the Vale of Neath with the traditional tests further north, run in the opposite direction to 2007, before a modified stage inside Cardiff's spectacular Millennium Stadium.

The final day is based solely in the south. Drivers tackle 19 stages covering 348.99km in a route of 1428.44km.

Last year:

Mikko Hirvonen won the Wales Rally GB last year leading throughout and eventually finishing 15.2 seconds up on Marcus Gronholm, despite a scare in the final test. Sebastien Loeb completed the top three followed by Petter Solberg and Dani Sordo. Matthew Wilson, Chris Atkinson and Manfred Stohl rounded out the points' scorers in 6th, 7th and 8th.

In terms of retirees a number of drivers' failed to make it to the end, most noticeably Luis-Perez Companc, who crashed out on the final day, as well as Andreas Mikkelsen and Conrad Rautenbach. Jari-Matti Latvala and Henning Solberg both finished but had to SupeRally after visibility problems on day 1 in SS6.

 

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