Wales hosts the final round of the 2009 World Rally Championship, where Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen and Citroen’s Sebastien Loeb will do battle for championship honours.
Hirvonen holds a solitary point advantage over Loeb going into this weekend, and the task for each man is simple: Beat your rival. There are no point gaps to worry about here, so there will be a real showdown between the two.
Both the aforementioned are also contenders for the rally win this weekend, but are focused on beating each other rather than taking the rally victory. So who else could take the spoils come Sunday?
Petter Solberg has been talking up his chances of a first WRC win since this event in 2005. His recently acquired Citroen C4 will certainly give him the quick car he has needed this season, and expects a good result here.
“My goal is obviously to be fighting at the front,” Solberg said. “I've already been extremely impressed with the performance of the C4 and I hope to be able to seize every opportunity that comes my way on these stages that I really love.”
Another likely front-runner is Hirvonen’s team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala who without the pressure of a manufacturers championship to fight for, will go all out for the win, after narrowly missing out last year to Loeb by just 12.7 seconds. However, he is set to play the team game to help Hirvonen go for glory rather than take a win for himself.
“Up to six drivers can fight for victory on this rally, I really think it could be that wide open,” said Latvala. “I hope I have the pace to be among them, but a win here for me is less important than helping Mikko to take the title. My main target is to help him achieve that.”
Meanwhile Loeb has decided to take a do or die approach to the weekend, deciding he will not carry any spare parts in his C4 to reduce weight: “We’re here to fight and every spare part we take is going to add weight and take away performance.”
Hirvonen on the other hand is taking a more conservative approach, with team boss Malcolm Wilson insisting spares would be necessary for the Finn to carry with him at all times.
“On this kind of rally it’s very easy to bend something on the suspension,” said Wilson. “We’re looking at what will go in the car, but Mikko will have some parts. It’s difficult, because if either of them have a problem then it could make the championship academic.”
Looking towards the championship battle, Hirvonen said, “I feel really excited about the situation and can’t wait for the rally to start, but I don’t feel any pressure. It will be a hard fight and I don’t underestimate the job I need to do.”
As the current championship leader, Hirvonen will also start first on the road, which has previously been something of a stumbling block for the Finn. Yet he insists there is no problem this time round.
“It’s not the sort of rally where there is a massive difference between running first, second or third on the road,” he said. “If it’s really muddy then first on the road is the best place to be and if it’s dry and dusty then first is also best. So I’m happy with starting first.”
But there is one last runner who could pull off a big surprise this weekend. Sebastien Ogier made his WRC debut here last year in a C4, and was leading the event until he crashed out after skidding off the road in icy conditions. But with the event being a month earlier than previous, Ogier has a chance to take his first ever WRC victory. But his aims are a little lower, considering he has manufacturer points to score, a crash while pushing for position would do more harm than good.
“This will be the very first rally that we have driven before with a WRC car,” said Ogier. “I don't think that this will give us any particular advantage, but it should certainly make things a little bit easier. The idea is for us to get quickly up to speed and aim for a good result. A top-five finish would be great, but if the podium is within our reach then we will do everything possible to go for it.”
Petter Solberg has so far been true to his word, demonstrating he has the pace to win the event by posting the fastest time in today’s Shakedown stage. Latvala was close behind, two tenths off the pace, followed by Henning Solberg, Ogier, Loeb, Dani Sordo, with Hirvonen and Mads Ostberg tied in 7th place.
“We stalled on our first run but the car worked very well and we were on the pace even with that,” said Petter. “Then we did some small changes, but on the last run we went back to the set-up we found on our pre-event test and it felt fine. I’m happy to have found this feeling so quickly in this car.”