Wales Rally GB is another 2018 WRC event with a majorly updated route. New regulations allowing rallying on public roads have resulted in interesting new road combinations, thus making the route contain a considerable amount of tarmac, to be driven on gravel tyres and suspension. The stages have been shuffled around the itinerary, putting more weight on North Wales, with a mission to reduce liaison kilometres. What else can we expect from this years edition of this classic event?
The shakedown is driven again at Clocaenog, using the same route as 2015 and almost the same as two previous years, with just an alternate route last driven in 2016 as the Clocaenog stage.
In this configuration the stage will feature a junction where Jari-Matti Latvala went into the ditch in 2014 when the road was a part of the rally stage.
The rally-opening super special is again at Tir Prince, in my opinion one of the lamest super specials of the season. But at least the equally lame Cholmondey Castle super special is omitted from this year’s rally, also taking out an unnecessary liaison over to England.
In the past few years, only the short Sunday has been based in North Wales, but this time the Friday stages are also situated there. The North Wales roads have more countryside and lakeside areas as opposed to just forests and mountains of the Mid Wales region. They are also a bit narrower, but that doesn’t mean they would not be fast!
Thus the rally opens properly with the forest roads of the Clocaenog stage. It has an especially very fast straight at 2.5 km where the cars could hit their top speed. Parts of the narrow stage are shared with the shakedown, but mostly the route is the same as in 2016, with just a deviation at 4.7 km to roads which did include last year on the shakedown. That way, this onboard of last year’s shakedown shows the last 3 km of this year’s Clocaenog stage.
The narrow countryside test Brenig was among the slowest stages of the 2017 rally, whereas the nearby Alwen was one of the fastest, with its long straights. This year they are combined with added roads for the longest stage of the rally at 29 km, titled Brenig.
After 4 km of last year’s Brenig’s beginning there’s an 11 km sequence of new roads, partly driven in 2014 and 2015, partly to the opposite direction. Looking at those onboards, most of them seem narrow but fast. One section can also be seen in this Cambrian Rally 2013 onboard up to 1:58. It’s extremely narrow, although not otherwise very technical.
Before rejoining Brenig there’s three tarmac parts in total, the last one of which continues to where the rally ended last year, and the tarmac will then continue all over to the Alwen start through a fast-looking section and across a main road, making it in total over 4 km of tarmac on the stage.
Together all this makes up a very varying stage with many rhythm and surface changes. The roads are mainly narrow like typically in North Wales but the speed and level of technicality changes between the parts and then the tarmac sections are a whole different story.
Here we can see Andreas Mikkelsen’s performance on the shorter Brenig stage last year. Notice that between 2:40 and 3:17 this year’s stage will make that extra 11 km loop, returning where last year’s stage moved onto the tarmac section for the finish. After that the tarmac would continue further until the Alwen part starts.
The final proper stage of the day is Penmachno. It is mostly new to the current drivers, although near the end is a 4 km part driven in 2013.
Penmachno was a staple of the rally route in the RAC Rally days, until 1995, driven typically in North and South parts, which are now combined through two stretches of narrow tarmac road. Together the tarmac sections make up about 1.3 km of the stage.
This video from Cambrian Rally 2018 shows some of the Northern parts of Penmachno. The first 2:18 of the roads on the video will be driven about 7 km into the Wales Rally GB stage. To me it looks pretty fast before and after the hairpin junction.
Further in the video, starting around 4:57 we see the first 2.5 km of the Wales Rally GB Penmachno. That section seems to have some proper corners, being still rather fast. At 6:50 the stage turns into a gravel pit detour, which the WRC event will also do, but after that the routes differ again. Another Cambrian Rally onboard from 2016 shows the following piece of forest road in reversed direction. That seems very small and tricky, even rocky and rough at places.
Meanwhile, the Southern part roads at the end of this year’s Penmachno – shown again in reverse on a Cambrian rally onboard – seem more like the mid Wales roads, wider and cambered with more space to go sideways. All this put together, it’s another tricky stage with many different road types.
The morning loop is concluded with the new Slate Mountain super special before the service. We can expect it to be similar to Sweet Lamb with artificial water splashes and jumps. Seems like a good show for the spectators with easy access and a quick repeated double run means a good value for the ticket price.
After midday service, the afternoon loop just contains repeats of the first three morning stages.
Saturday takes the crews to mid Wales for the whole day with no return to the service park. In here the roads are a bit wider and there’s no tarmac parts in the stages.
The day opens with the legendary fast and challenging Myherin, which was revised and then shortened last year because of a tree disease and this year it’s driven exactly the same way, being the only stage remaining in the exact same form from last year.
Most of the stage is driven in the open hills with no trees in sight. However, the first 8.3 km are a narrow forest road, where Thierry Neuville was lucky last year to escape this visit to a ditch with no considerable time loss or damage to the car.
Myherin was also notoriously foggy for the first run in 2016 and the second run ruined Craig Breen’s rally, with a roll just 2 km from the start.
Meanwhile, Esapekka Lappi was lucky going wide the same year.
Next we get the no less legendary Sweet Lamb Hafren. These two stages have been combined together again for the first time since 2014, but driven now to the other direction. The Hafren part has been driven Northwards for the two last years but in the middle there’s a bit of deviation that has was only included in 2015 Southwards and some kilometres cut from the end, leaving the last 9.5 km of this year’s stage familiar from last year. The short part where the stage joins last year’s Hafren is very wide, but the ending is narrower. Last year Craig Breen went into the ditch in Hafren, but that section is not included this year.
The road connecting Sweet Lamb and Hafren hasn’t been driven before in this direction. Meanwhile, the beginning of the stage has remained the same, containing all of last year’s Sweet Lamb stage, one of the few sections in the rally to contain jumps. Last year Yazeed Al-Rajhi infamously rolled his (now-burnt-to-carcass) Fiesta RS WRC in one of them.
In 2015 Jari-Matti Latvala was again unlucky, stalling the engine and going into the ditch at Sweet Lamb in 2015. This year the same corner appears at 4 km into Sweet Lamb Hafren.
The “Super Saturday” keeps pulling aces from its sleeve with three more classic forest stages. They are packed with quite wide and cambered forest roads with well enough space to make a racing line through the long corners with of course plenty of hairpins and some narrower sections.
Compared to last year, Dyfi has omitted a few kilometres of smaller road and reversed the direction. In fact it’s quite close now to the 2016 version with just 1.7 km missing from the start.
The following stage Gartheiniog is Elfyn Evans’s home stage. It is shortened by one km from the start – a very fast section – but otherwise it’s familiar from last year. It may have a piece of small road at the very beginning, but after that it’s back to the classic Mid Wales roads.
The slippery Dyfnant is run only once at the end of the morning loop. This year it is again reversed, returning to the direction from 2016. It has been considerably shortened, containing now only the last 8 km of last year’s stage.
In 2015 the stage was driven in this year’s direction but it started earlier and ended later. However, that year Thierry Neuville rolled his Hyundai in a place that will appear near this year’s finish.
Next up is a tyre change remote service, meaning that the drivers will have to tackle 150 km of special stages – 47% of the whole rally – without proper servicing. All the four stages of the day except Dyfnant will be repeated and a long liaison driven back before the service park is finally reached. In contrast to last year, the dramatic night stages from last year’s Saturday are now omitted altogether.
A single run of the Elsi stage opens Sunday. It has not been featured in the WRC event before. Again a Cambrian rally onboard shows parts of the roads. The bits from the start to 1:11 and again 3:22 to finish are included on the WRC Elsi stage. To me it looks quite tricky and technical overall, although we only see about 4 km of the 10 km stage.
Last year Gwydir was the slowest non-super-special stage of the rally. This year it has retained the first 5 km of its route, but with almost 10 km of undriven roads added to the end. This is also the first time Gwydir is driven twice in the rally.
The beginning of the stage is not that narrow but it’s driven mostly under tree branches, making it probably very slippery. At 3.8 km the road becomes very narrow but conversely faster! The new roads after 5 km are a mystery, but on the map they look very twisty. At 8.8 km into the stage, one km of a narrow countryside tarmac road is included.
Most of the ending of the stage can be seen in a Cambrian rally onboard. At 2:12 the video takes a detour and comes back at 3:36 for the final corners, with the WRC finish around 3:57. To me it looks like a pretty fast and flowing road.
The third stage of the day is the all tarmac Great Orme Llandudno, set up on the scenic seaside cliffs, with a conclusion at the streets of the city of Llandudno.
The Great Orme stage was last run in the rally in 2015, but to the other direction. We have to go back to 2013 to find the same direction being used, but still the stage is now stretched from both ends, with a Mickey Mouse style ending, complete with a roundabout donut round.
Great Orme can be treacherous. The grip level with gravel tyres and suspension is unpredictable, and once you go wide, you will hit something hard. We remember this incident of Sebastien Ogier from 2011, when the driving direction was opposite to this year.
As we know from the news, the rally organizers wanted Great Orme to be the Power Stage, but FIA refused to let an all tarmac stage to be a power stage in a gravel rally. The resulting solution was interesting with the first run of Gwydir becoming already the points awarding power stage and the rally-concluding run of Great Orme is just live broadcasted. I guess it was a matter of television crew’s schedules to have already the first run of Gwydir as the power stage instead of the second. Now, the drivers won’t be able to get a “high speed recce” first run on the stage before fighting for the tenths.
In my opinion, the route revamp has been successful, reducing the liaisons and creating new interesting ideas for the spectators, as well as taking advantage of the now available public roads. Last year I was nervous over the Friday stages which were run without service, but in the end no one had a need of service during the day. This year however the longer stretch of stages without servicing – occuring this year on Saturday – is 150 km compared to 120 km of last year.
The increased tarmac parts will sure make things interesting when driving on gravel tyres and suspension, but in a way it is a part of the heritage of RAC Rally. Great Orme will be a spectacular finale but I agree that it was the right decision not to make it a power stage.
Like said, only on stage, Myherin, will be run the same way as last year – making the rally join the club of Rally Finland and Rally Australia with a similar amount of updates on the route. However, there are still many reusable pages of pace notes from the past few years, but probably more new sections than in a long time.
Complete maps at www.rally-maps.com
Traditionally starting first in Wales is not a problem, thanks to predominantly wet conditions. Sebastien Ogier won the rally every time in his VW years of 2013-2016, leading always from the first stage to the end, although starting first on the road on Friday. This year he’ll start the rally third on the road, something he hasn’t tried in a very long time.
However, this year the event is held earlier and the summer has been hot and dry. We could see a different type of Wales Rally GB, but that’s also down to how the weather turns out just before and during the event.
Here is Colin McRae doing the Hafren stage in 1994, probably to the other direction than this year.
And here Juha Kankkunen doing Gartheiniog in 1993. The conditions probably won’t be as tricky this year!
Cover image by Sledovat Ford Czech Republik