A “Home” Round for the Citroën Racing Crews
Although none of them are actually Welsh, Kris Meeke, Paul Nagle, Craig Breen, Scott Martin and Chris Patterson all think of Wales Rally GB as their home rally. Three weeks after winning in Catalonia, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT heads into the penultimate round of the season full of determination and ambition.
THE CHARM OF THE MUDDY WELSH FORESTS
Rain, mud, fog and occasionally, even ice. This is what waits in the forests of Wales for the penultimate round of the 2017 FIA World Rally Championship. However, despite this rather gloomy description, Wales Rally GB is a hugely popular event with both drivers and fans alike. Spectators are more than prepared to brave the poor weather in order to watch and admire their favourite drivers flying at full speed along the gravel roads, famous for their constantly changing levels of grip.
This year's event promises to be interesting, first and foremost since it will be the first outing of the 2017 World Rally Cars on the slippery and ever-spectacular Welsh gravel. Furthermore, the outcome of the world titles may be decided by the end of this twelfth round.
Based in Deeside, in the north of Wales, the event starts on Thursday evening with the super special stage held on the Tir Prince raceway. The real action will get underway on Friday, with two loops of three classic stages, well known to the drivers. With just a tyre-fitting period at midday, any mistake or mechanical problem is likely to prove very costly. Day two will be even more difficult, a mighty seventeen hours long, featuring seven stages contested without a service and then two speed tests held after dark. On Sunday, the last five stages will determine the finishing order of the leading contenders, who will then head for the podium ceremony in Llandudno.
Beginning with the ceremonial start at Tir Prince, fans will have several opportunities to see the drivers close up, with the tyre-fitting zone in Newtown (Friday at 13:27 BST), regroups in Chester (Friday at 19:01 BST), Corris (Saturday at 11:13 BST) and Brenig (Sunday at 11:28 GMT), as well as the stage held in the grounds of Cholmondeley Castle (Saturday at 15:45 BST). All from the British Isles, Kris Meeke (Northern Ireland), Paul Nagle (Ireland), Craig Breen (Ireland), Scott Martin (England) and Chris Patterson (Northern Ireland) will undoubtedly be among the most sought after during the autograph-signing sessions.
THE CHALLENGE: BUILD ON THE POTENTIAL OF THE CITROËN C3 WRC
With Andreas Mikkelsen's second place in Germany and Kris Meeke's win in Spain, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT has begun a cycle of positive results at the last two rallies. The hard work of the engineers, technicians and crews has started to pay dividends and these results have only strengthened the determination of the team managed by Yves Matton.
Everyone knows that the physical characteristics of the Welsh roads are different to the last few rounds. However, the performance shown in Poland suggests that the Citroën C3 WRC has real potential on slippery gravel surfaces. As is often the case, the combination of weather conditions and the running order for the first leg may have a major influence on the outcome of the rally. If it rains on Friday, the eighth and ninth positions of Craig Breen and Kris Meeke on the start list will be a difficult handicap to overcome. Whatever happens, the Citroën drivers are really determined to put on a show for their home fans.
Before arriving in Wales, Kris Meeke will have spent a lot of time behind the wheel of a WRC. As soon as he completed pre-event testing for Wales, he set off for San Marino to take part in Rallylegend in a Citroën Xsara WRC. Winner of two rallies this season – like Sébastien Ogier and Ott Tänak – Meeke will inevitably be in the spotlight at his home round. As the end of the year approaches, the Ulsterman wants to be in the best possible shape ahead of the 2018 season. For his tenth appearance at the event, he would dearly love to repeat his almost perfect rally of 2015, at the end of which he finished as runner-up.
A six-time participant at this rally, Craig Breen has less experience than his team-mate. However, he has regularly proven his ability to adapt and demonstrated his consistency in the Citroën C3 WRC. Having finished fifth six times this season, the Irishman will be aiming for a similar result, if not better. The third car will be driven by Khalid Al Qassimi. The Abu Dhabi driver hasn’t contested the British round of the WRC since 2010, but he is also very motivated to keep improving behind the wheel of the C3 WRC.
To prepare for this event, Citroën Racing held a test session in the south of France, on surfaces similar to those of the Welsh forest gravel roads. Rain, mud and fog all made an appearance.
Yves Matton, Citroën Racing Team Principal: “For the final European round of the season, we are going to be tackling a very specific event, and one at which Citroën has had not a lot of success in the past. With each round, the C3 WRC is developing, whether it is just minor details or more significant changes. The aim is always to make the car more versatile and easier to run. Wales Rally GB will give us a good chance to estimate how much progress we have made in this area in the last few months. We'll be keeping a very close eye on the weather forecast, because it will have a huge influence on our performances on the first day. Whatever happens, we'll be pleased if we manage to get one of the cars on the podium.”
Kris Meeke: “Wales Rally GB is obviously a very special event for me. I competed in my very first rally here, almost twenty years ago. So it's the event that I know the best and the surface that comes most naturally to me. Our win in Spain was a great morale boost for the whole team. Having said that, it doesn't guarantee anything for this event. We'll see what sort of performance level we have in the Welsh forests. Obviously, a lot will depend on the weather. Running ninth on the road on Friday will be a handicap if it rains. In any case, I'm very motivated and will be doing everything I can to secure another good result for Citroën.”
Number of appearances at the event: 9
Best result: 2nd (2015)
Craig Breen: “Between my appearances in the British Rally Championship and the WRC, I feel like I know this event pretty well. I have a lot of good memories here, the highlight being when we won the Junior WRC title. That was in 2011 and it was all the more special because my co-driver at the time, Gareth Roberts, was Welsh. After missing the last rally, I'm very happy to be back in the C3 WRC for the final two rounds of the season. As always, it's pretty difficult to set a specific target, given how much the conditions can affect the standings. But after finishing fifth six times, I would certainly love to do a bit better.”
Number of appearances at the event: 6
Best result: 13th (2012 & 2015)
Khalid Al Qassimi "The last time I competed at Wales Rally GB was back in 2010. It is therefore going to be an entirely new challenge for me. We know how difficult this rally can be, especially because of the weather, which can make the stages very muddy. Before going to Wales, I will take part in a day's testing and I'm banking on the experience of the team to have a C3 WRC with a set-up adapted to my driving style."
Number of appearances at the event: 3
Best result: 11th (2010)