Wales Rally GB Conwy Castle
-SÉBASTIEN OGIER SETS THE EARLY PACE
15 November 2013 07:51am By Wales Rally GB
Wales Rally GB gets underway and Sébastien Ogier leads the way after the opening three stages.© Wales Rally GB* Huge crowd enjoys glittering opening Wales Rally GB ceremony * Champion Ogier leads after three frenetic forest stages in darkness * Three-way scrap ensues with Neuville and Latvala in close contention
Wales Rally GB officially got underway with a glorious ceremonial celebration at Conwy Castle this evening (14 November) before newly crowned WRC champion Sébastien Ogier stamped his authority on the event by setting the pace after the opening three stages.
The Frenchman led his VW team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala on stages one and two, before M-Sport’s Thierry Neuville topped the final stage to set up an enthralling three-way battle at the top of the standings.
After lasers and rally images had been projected on to the medieval castle walls in the picturesque Conwy Quay in front of a huge crowd, the scene was finally set for the world’s finest rally drivers to fire off into the legendary Welsh forest in complete darkness, with the leading cars being flagged away by Minister for Culture and Sport, John Griffiths.
Volkswagen Motorsport immediately laid down a marker on the opening 6.95km Gwydyr stage, with Latvala the first driver to take to the dark and damp conditions. Targeting a hat-trick of Wales Rally GB victories this weekend, the Finn set a benchmark time of 4:44.4s, which his team-mate Ogier immediately bettered by just 1.3s.
The only other driver who seemed able to cope with the early pace of the lead duo was the fellow Volkswagen Polo R WRC of Andreas Mikkelsen. The Norwegian set the quickest time of all on the opening split and was only narrowly down on his stable-mates after the second sector. He lost time late on, however, and eventually dropped behind the Qatar World Rally Team Ford of Neuville.
The other Fords of Mads Østberg and Evgeny Novikov followed in the times but there was drama further down the order when the final WRC runner Michal Solowow slid off the road, before his Ford Fiesta WRC was collected by the WRC2 machine of Yazeed Al Rajhi.
Ogier edged out a further advantage on the 9.28km stage two, which horseshoes its way through the Penmachno valley. Latvala kept him honest, however, as he completed the section just 0.9s shy of his team-mate, with Neuville a further second back.
“It’s a nice battle already between Seb and I,” said Latvala. “It’s not easy – in the places where it’s wet and muddy I don’t quite have the confidence yet.”
The top three runners were separated by less than four seconds but the gap back to the chasing pack had already increased to more than 12s. The Citroën of Mikko Hirvonen was the best of the rest as both he and Østberg leapfrogged Mikkelsen, despite the latter suffering with persisting gear problems.
If Volkswagen thought it was set to have it all its own way on day one then Neuville had other ideas, responding in fine style on Thursday’s final stage. The Belgian beautifully weaved his way through the 7.52km of Clocaenog Forest to set the fastest time and jump ahead of Latvala in the overall standings in the process – the lead trio separated by just five seconds.
Hirvonen remains in touch after an impressive late run in his Citroën DS3 WRC, whilst Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team driver Østberg resisted the challenge from Mikkelsen to maintain fifth.
Robert Kubica swapped positions with Russian Novikov throughout the evening, with the Pole in a brilliant seventh after completing his first day, well night, in a full-blown WRC car without incident. “It’s going okay,” said Kubica. “Everything is new for us. I have no experience of these conditions – at least in the day I will be able to see!”
Local hero Elfyn Evans leads WRC2 in his M-Sport Ford Fiesta R5 with the Welshman impressively inside the overall top ten as he targets a maiden class victory on home soil.
The action goes up a notch tomorrow with six stages scheduled, including two RallyFest runs at Sweet Lamb. The morning’s three stages in Hafren, Sweet Lamb and Myherin are then tackled again in identical order later the same afternoon, giving the competitors some welcome familiarity during the day.
It’s a familiar scene in the standings of course with champion Ogier leading the way, but it’s clear he has a fierce battle on his hands if he’s to win Wales Rally GB for the first time in his career.
Sébastien Ogier said: “It is quite a good start. It’s never easy to start the rally in the night, especially in the tricky and slippery conditions. We didn’t push too hard tonight but we did enough to take the lead. I am sure my experience is going to help me over the
weekend but this is a rally where it’s never over until it’s over. It’s going to be a tough challenge like it always is here but I feel I am better prepared than before to face it.”