2017 Wales Rally GB: WRC2 Preview – Young Pretender Faces Junior Titans

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Credit: @World / Red Bull Content Pool

The title is already wrapped up, and yet the WRC2 battle is more interesting now than at any other point in the season. Pontus Tidemand arrives the newly crowned king, but a young prince has eyes on his throne for next year. Kalle Rovanperä has arrived, the eyes of the rallying world affixed on the 17 year old’s WRC debut.

A somewhat common side effect of wrapping up a title ahead of schedule is a relaxation period, where form tails off slightly as complacency sets in. With Tidemand, this is unlikely. He has a greater motivation than even the WRC2 title this weekend.

The honours on offer this week are more a chance to impress Malcolm Wilson, in something akin to a casting call for Ott Tänak‘s replacement in the senior M-Sport team next year. Tidemand may be the feeder series champion, but he is the outsider, the Škoda youth product facing off against the Ford pair of Teemu Suninen and Eric Camilli for a shot at the soon-to-be vacant Fiesta WRC seat.

The conditions will also be amongst the toughest Rovanperä will have ever faced, the Welsh forests in October a difficult setting in which to make a category debut. Conversely, Suninen was looking to the potentially atrocious weather of the Welsh forests to make the difference in his fight for second in the championship, and reaffirm his credentials for a permanent WRC drive next year.

“I have always liked this rally,” he said. “If there is some fog and rain then it all comes down to who can be the bravest out on the stages. In those conditions you need to be fearless. Sometimes in the fog you can’t see past the clips on your bonnet and you need to have complete trust in your co-driver.”

This battle for exposure represents a problem for Rovanperä. Not only are there a trio of youngsters trying to impress for a WRC seat, but the field is packed to the brim with experienced opponents. Of the regular podium contenders, only Jan Kopecký and Quentin Gilbert have elected to skip Rally GB. There are at least half a dozen other drivers who can make his debut a difficult one.

Fellow Scandinavian Ole Christian Veiby has been on excellent form this season, the first driver to beat the dominant factory Škoda Motorsport cars in Poland, while at the wheel of a privateer Printsport-prepared Fabia. As a reward for his efforts this year, he has been handed the keys to one of said factory Škodas this weekend.

The challenge will also come thick and fast from the contenders that call this rally their home round. Twice British Rally Championship runner-up Tom Cave has switched back to a nearly new Ford Fiesta, after spending much of this season in a Hyundai i20 used to score a WRC2 podium in Finland.

Gus Greensmtih is ever present in the category, having demonstrated time and time again the raw pace to finish on the podium, but unable to string a full rally together without incident this year.

“We’ve turned heads for the right reasons and the wrong reasons this year, but I am determined to enjoy my home event and hopefully a strong result will follow,” said Greensmith. “It’s only a matter of time before everything starts to click into place.”

Credit: Sarah Vessely / Hyundai Motorsport

One man who has succeeded straight off the bat in their WRC2 career is a driver not even registered for points this weekend, but still in Wales piloting an R5 specification Hyundai i20. Jari Huttunen has defeated Rovanperä in one key battle already this season, securing the support of Hyundai’s driver development scheme for a full WRC2 programme next season.

Though Huttunen is older than his Finnish counterpart, Rally GB is only the third event in his career to date at the wheel of an R5 car. By comparison, this will be Rovanperä’s 19th. The former may have faced a depleted WRC2 field in Finland for his category debut, but Huttunen still took on and defeated the likes of the non-points-scoring Camilli and Veiby, setting a high benchmark for Rovanperä.

Regardless of what the quarrelling regulars are up to, it is Huttunen on whom he must focus. Tidemand, Suninen and Camilli may be battling for tomorrow’s prize, but Rovanperä and Huttunen are only at the beginning of battle to become Finland’s next rallying superstar.

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Alasdair Lindsay is a Regular Contributor to TCF and can be found on twitter at @AlasdairLindsay
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