Wales Rally GB is driven on fast and muddy forest roads which were used decades ago in the Welsh leg of the RAC Rally, thus continuing its heritage. This year’s route is essentially a combination of the three past years with a couple of new parts.
RAC Rally was known for its long route which traveled through Great Britain, from the park stages of England to the tricky forest roads of Yorkshire, Lake District and Scotland – and of course Wales. In 1997, in order to make the route more compact, all the forest stages were driven in South Wales. The following year the RAC name was dropped, and from 2003 the rally has been known as Wales Rally GB.
The rally moved up to North Wales in 2013 with an opening day driven there already in 2011. This meant that most of the stages the drivers had tackled for 15 years wouldn’t be used anymore. The service has been in Deeside for the past six years but now it’s moved only slightly West to Llandudno, which didn’t have any effect on the route structure.
The characteristics of the rally are often defined by the evident dampness and muddy surface of the Welsh forest roads. The mud will also stick to the cars and make them heavier, in addition to blocking visibility from the side windows.
There’s often a fast-flowing feel of long corners although the roads are typically quite narrow. However, most of the corners are well cambered and the tighter ones are wider because the roads are typically built for timber trucks.
In addition to living trees next to the road, log piles or single logs lying next to the road must be watched for and they’re typically marked with glowing tape. Some places are slowed down with strawbale chicanes if there is an element of danger after a fast passage.
Last year a new legislation allowed public roads to be used for a rally stage in Wales. This was taken into use on four different stages. However, this year only one of them has remained.
This year Rally GB hosts a different super special stage every day. In a way it’s a continuation of the heritage of the RAC Rally days where the whole opening day consisted of super specials in English parks. It could also be due to the fact that the forest stages aren’t the easiest ones to access.
Last year’s power stage Gwydir is now used as the shakedown. The beginning of the stage has a new 1.3 km section with a double junction. Where it joins the familiar route through a hairpin, the road is medium wide in the forest with a constant flow of small technical turns, not letting the speed increase. It then gets narrower and faster at 3.6 km with a similar technical nature, and a couple of tighter bends at the end.
This shakedown represents well the technical forest roads seen often in North Wales, but not so much of the faster and flowing sections with longer corners typical to Mid Wales.
Last year the rally didn’t step once onto England’s side. However, this year the ceremonial start is in Liverpool. An even more welcome addition is the opening super special of Oulton Park, a familiar motor track stage from the RAC rally days.
The stage begins on the wide tarmac racing circuit. The inevitable donut is situated at the pit lane entry after the first corner. At 1.4 km there’s a “shortcut” to a narrower and more angular version of the motor track.
After returning back onto the main track, there’s a tight turn at 1.8 km onto a narrow service road which will include a water splash. It also takes the route back to the 1.4 km shortcut section, which is tackled now for the second time.
On the second pass the track proceeds a bit further with a turn at 2.9 km onto a muddy and narrow service road and then the last 500 metres on a narrower “Rally stages” tarmac section with a slippery surface, tighter bends and crests. This section could also become muddy from cutting.
The stage has length and proper corners so we will see some time differences. I would also presume it’s great for spectators, and the heritage is there. All in all this seems like a job well done. I hope the track is not narrowed with barriers.
The Friday stages are driven from North to Mid Wales. They feature the most technical and rough sections of the whole rally, but also plenty of long straights on narrow forest roads. These roads are also the least familiar to the drivers.
Friday begins with Elsi, a new stage introduced last year, thus being the only non-RAC classic forest stage of the day. Last year it was the slowest non-super-special of the rally at 82 km/h, which is the slowest the rally has seen since Grizedale East in 1994, and the cars must have advanced quite a lot in 24 years!
For this year the stage is driven in reversed direction with a slightly altered route. This year it is also repeated. Hopefully the small forest road won’t cut up too much for the second run, although last year especially the westernmost few kilometres seemed to be in excellent condition.
Last year’s Elsi route was all technical from the beginning to the end without any distinctive rhythm changes. The new section from 3.5 to 7.3 km is no different, and includes a twisty descend at 5.3 km as well as an uphill hairpin junction at 6.9 km.
Some areas have the forest harvested, with no landmarks to see where the road goes But in most places the visibility is low due to the dense vegetation, and the trees are close to the road with no ditches.
It’s also worth mentioning that the triangle junction chicane used last year is removed now. As if a stage like this would need a chicane!
Penmachno is driven almost the same way as last year. In the RAC Rally days it was driven in separate South and North sections but now a piece of public road bridges the parts together. It is the only stage this year to do so. In the recent Wales Rally GB era, Penmachno has only featured once before last year, in 2013.
This stage begins also on a narrow forest road, but it’s now less technical and more typically mid-Welsh flowing with only a pair of tight corners at 0.6 km. At 2.2 km there is an artificial spectator-friendly extra bend on a quarry.
Then the next road is very narrow and technical with sharp crests and the trees very close. At 3.2 km the road widens a bit and the pace is upped but it’s still technical, quite hectic even. This is where Teemu Suninen crashed on the second pass last year.
A hairpin at 4.7 km starts a short fast section which ends in a junction onto tarmac. Both Thierry Neuville and Sebastien Ogier went wide here last year, the latter damaging the gearbox in the process.
The tarmac road is not wider than the gravel ones, but thanks to higher grip it’s a quite fast kilometre. Esapekka Lappi went into the ditch here on the second run last year, but was lucky to escape without damage or much time loss.
The following section starting at 6.8 km is like Rally Deutschland on gravel – narrow but super fast except for the tight junctions. Top speeds of 180 km/h can be reached on these forest roads.
Another short narrow tarmac passage leads into the Southern part of the Penmachno stage. Here the road is wider and it’s quite fast and flowing. At 15.6 km there is another junction turn where Sebastien Ogier stalled his car last year, but this year the ending turns left instead of right, with only 500 metres to the finish.
Dyfnant has been run in Wales Rally GB every year the rally has been based in North. This year it’s again given its longer form. The ending was last driven in 2013 in this direction, but there’s a small new detour on the way.
The beginning is medium wide and fast-flowing with a smooth surface. At times the road is a bit narrower or a bit rougher, and at 1 km there is a coarsely gravely surface. There’s a few junction turns, but the rhythm doesn’t change. Craig Breen had a big slide on the hairpin junction at 7.3 km.
The road becomes slightly narrower at 7.6 km. There’s banks on the side, making it feel even narrower. This is where Thierry Neuville rolled his Hyundai in 2015.
The section remains very fast with the exception of a tricky junction at 9.3 km. At 11.6 km the surface is again a bit rougher.
The medium wide road from the beginning of the stage is rejoined at 13.1 km. The last four kilometres feature six tight junction turns with fast and narrow forest roads in between. There’s also a small bit of road at 15.2 km which has not been used in this direction in the WRC event since 1995.
Aberhirnant has featured in Wales Rally GB every year from 2013 to 2017. The last time it was driven in this direction was 2016, although now it’s shortened. It should be among the fastest stages of the rally.
The road is again quite narrow. It has an angular rhythm where flat out passages are interrupted only by tighter corners. There’s a chicane at 2.3 km after which the stage has a more Mid-Welsh flow of long fast corners. A super fast section begins at 5.2 km. Then at 7.6 km some tighter corners start jarring the pace and this angular rhythm remains until the end.
The day’s super special is driven at Slate Mountain which made its debut last year. This time the route is reversed and altered from last year.
Most of the stage is quite technical with constant small turns, but the ending has a fast passage with a chicane. As the name suggests, the area consists of man-made mountains of slate. The roads are quite narrow and moderately rough, often bumpy and jumpy. The banks are filled with slate stones with little margin for error.
This is a super special, but far from the Gymkhana tests we’ve gotten used to. It’s just a short stage driven in an area where the access for spectators is easier. I wish the WRC had more stages like this. I was also saddened to see the length of the stage cut in half from the original plans.
In the RAC years a good part of the stages were driven during the night. Driving in the dark was a missing element last year, but this year the second repeats of Dyfnant and Aberhirnant are driven after the dusk has fallen. In 2017 the night stages were quite dramatic.
Saturday is driven again in Mid Wales, far from the service park, with only a remote tyre change in Newtown. Thus 151 stage kilometres must be tackled without a proper service.
The stages in this area have a more fast-flowing feel, partly on wider roads. Some of the stages were also used occasionally in the South Wales based rally, so they could be a bit more familiar to the most experienced drivers.
The day contains the three longest stages of the whole rally and the only ones to exceed 20 km in length. However, the tradition of marathon stages is disappearing in Wales as well with even 30 km stages being only a distant memory of the past.
Dyfi is the longest stage of the rally at just under 26 km. It is situated slightly more North than the two others so it’s driven as the first of the morning loop and the last of the afternoon loop, in order to reduce liaisons.
Dyfi returned onto Wales Rally GB’s route in 2011 and has featured again every year since 2013. Last year it was driven in the opposite direction and a shorter configuration. This year’s version is identical to those of 2015 and 2017.
It’s also worth mentioning the stage has been also titled decades ago as Dovey, which hints at how the name still should be pronounced. Sometimes it was also labeled Dyfi Main to separate it from Dyfi Gartheiniog.
The stage starts on a quite narrow road, for the most part stuck between a ravine and a bank. It’s fast and flowing until a series of tight bends at 3.8 km with a good view for spectators.
Then there is a a super fast section which leads into a series of hairpins with fast accelerations in between. The road also narrows a bit here.
At 10.6 km there is a turn onto a section not used last year. It goes quite deep in the forest with the banks and trees often close to the road. The sections under the branches could be more slippery. The section is quite technical at first but straightens up a bit at 13.4 km.
At 14.5 km the stage returns onto the main section and becomes again fast and flowing. Some parts are a bit wider, some a bit narrower regardless of the couple of junctions on the way. A more coarsely gravely section at 19.7 km is followed 1 km later by a chicane. The following section has more technical bends with another strawbale-tightenend bend at 22 km. Subsequently banks and trees on the side make the road a bit narrower. Finally a very fast passage concludes the stage.
After two years of using an alternate route because of a tree disease, Myherin has returned back to its classic version, although the direction has been reversed for some years. In fact this configuration is the same as 2016 but about 9 km shorter from the beginning.
Now the start is on a wide and fast road in the hills and forests near the wind farm area. In just 2.7 km it deviates from the route of last two years onto a narrower but still very fast road. A couple of narrow gates are also hazardous in this section.
The stage becomes twistier at 5 km. A faster section follows at 7.6 km, only interrupted by a tricky junction turn at 8.3 km and a technical passage with a bridge at 10.2 km. A hairpin turn at 12.5 km makes the road a bit narrower, rougher and more angularly technical.
The wind farm is re-entered at 16.6 km. A junction through a gate at 17.1 km makes the road again a bit wider and very fast with more gates on the way. This spectacular section was also driven the last two years.
A more technical passage appears at 19.7 km. The road widens again at 20.3 km, just in time for the “Pikes peak” section with many long and wide hairpins, this time driven downhill.
Sweet Lamb Hafren is driven in its long form like last year. Now the ending is extended up to the 2017 finish line, making it almost as long as Dyfi.
Sweet Lamb and Hafren have been driven sometimes separately. Like Myherin, they have featured occasionally on the South Wales based rally, such as 1997-2000 and 2008-2010. Sometimes Sweet Lamb has included a long forest section and sometimes Hafren has contained the Sweet Lamb arena part without a mention in the title.
We could say this stage was crucial for the championship last year, as both Ott Tänak and Thierry Neuville lost chances of a victory on this very stage, letting Sebastien Ogier win the rally and take steps closer to the title.
The stage starts again from Sweet Lamb on a medium wide road. There’s a pair of hairpins and a tight gate making it a bit technical. A chicane and a narrow bridge lead into the Sweet Lamb arena which includes two jumps and a water splash.
After the junction turn at 2.5 km the road becomes a bit wider with some jumps and crests. These jumps broke Ott Tänak’s sumpguard and radiator last year, forcing him to retire from the lead.
The roads in this area are at times a bit more coarsely gravely. The ditches are deep and sometimes there’s a steep drop on the outside of the corner. The corners are long with plenty of room to go sideways. There’s again more jumps before a junction at 4.4 km and then a turn back to the same narrower road coming from the Sweet Lamb Arena. This section is fast and flowing in the hills.
The forest is entered at 7.2 km with a bit more technical section including a hairpin junction, where the Hafren part begins. The road is a bit wider than the other stages and fast but still quite technical.
The road narrows a bit at the hairpin junction at 12.6 km and becomes a bit more flowing, although some corners are still tight. Many bends have banks or piles of gravel on the inside preventing cutting. Thierry Neuville slid into the ditch last year on a right-hander at 14.9 km.
The junction at 17.6 km makes the stage more bumpy and technical but still mostly fast. The narrowness is increased through the banks on both sides of the road.
The day concludes with a new tarmac super special at Colwyn Bay. It’s comprised of a straight, a chicane, a turn to a parking lot for a donut and another chicane. And then the cars turn back and do the route backwards. Yep, that’s it. I find it difficult to find words to write about this stage.
Sunday stages are driven again in North Wales, a bit more to the East than the Friday stages. The day is very short, only 38 kilometres of stages, and includes even a visit to the service park. All three stages are different to each other and there’s a considerable amount of tarmac driving.
Alwen opens the day. It has been used in Wales Rally GB since 2014 with always the same configuration although in 2014 the direction was opposite. Back in the RAC days, this stage was run under the Clocaenog moniker. During the last few years it has been the fastest or one of the fastest stages of the rally. Last year it made up the last third of the long Brenig stage.
Most of Alwen is like a definition of what I call “angular” – long flat out sections stitched together by tight and/or short bends. Only a short technical passage at 3.2 km and a couple of longer bends here and there are exceptions to this rule. All the roads are narrow. For this year some foresting has been done, making corners probably appear a bit different.
Brenig is located just across the road from Alwen. The format is identical to 2017, when it was also the rally-ending power stage. In contrast to the fast Alwen, Brenig was the slowest forest stage in 2017 (except for the semi-artificial Sweet Lamb). Last year the beginning was the same as now, but there was a loop of forest roads in the middle, in addition to ending with all of the Alwen stage.
The beginning is on a narrow lakeside road. It’s a mix between fast sections and tighter bends, but everything has a smooth flow to it.
Entering a forest at 2.9 km makes the feel more hectic and technical, and it remains as the stage goes through a gate towards some fields. There’s a tricky downhill passage at 4.6 km and then the surface becomes paved at 5.1 km for the rest of the stage with two tricky junctions on the way.
Great Orme is also an RAC Rally classic, having been driven in 1981 and several times before. This year it is driven once between two runs of the forest stages.
Last year Great Orme was extended with an ending on the streets of Llandudno, thanks to the usage of public roads (the Great Orme road itself is a private road), but this year it is omitted. The direction is also the opposite, the same as in 2015 and 2011.
Great Orme is a medium wide tarmac road stuck between a wall and a huge drop. There is a stone wall on the side, but it must still be scary to drive flat out on this piece of road. Another challenge is the sidewalk on the right side of the road. Most of the stage is quite fast, but technical. It’s especially tricky thanks to driving with gravel tyres and suspension on tarmac.
We could say that last year Great Orme earned Sebastien Ogier the win. During the two runs over the stage combined Ogier was 10.9 seconds faster than Jari-Matti Latvala, whereas the overall gap between the two in the end was 10.6 seconds in Ogier’s favour.
Road conditions and starting order
During the years 2013-2016, no one else but Sebastien Ogier held the lead of Wales Rally GB, starting first on the road every year (except second in 2013 thanks to qualifying runs). This just proves how easy it is to go fast first on the road on the typically muddy and wet roads. The road will polish and become more slippery for everyone behind, in contrast to what happens on gravel roads in dry conditions.
Ott Tänak had secured starting first already after Rally Deutschland by having a 33 point championship lead. The Rally Turkey winner Sebastien Ogier climbed up to second now and Thierry Neuville will start third. The local hero Elfyn Evans has dropped down in the points standings because of having to skip the three last events. This means his starting position will be compromised, but then again he managed to win from being sixth on the road in 2017.
Here we have Colin McRae on the Hafren stage in 1994. The direction is opposite to this year, but but the route structure is similar with only some deviations here and there.