The 2015 FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) kicked off this weekend in traditional style high up in the Swiss Alps with the 83rd running of the world-famous Monte Carlo Rally, setting in motion the 13-round calendar that includes snow-packed roads of Sweden and dusty tracks in Argentina, Australia and Mexico before reaching a thrilling conclusion right here in the UK in the fearsome Welsh forests.
This year's Wales Rally GB takes place at the end of November (12-15 November) and will provide not only a fitting finale to the famously challenging global series but also a chance for locals to cheer on two of the UK's very own - Elfyn Evans and Kris Meeke.
Both British drivers moved up to frontline WRC teams in 2014 and both managed to produce some highly impressive performances in what was their first full campaign in the what is to all intents and purposes the Rally Premier League: Kris Meeke posting four podium finishes and finishing 7th overall and Evans putting in some fine performances without reward. While Evans will be setting his sights on his first podium, Meeke is looking for his first win - not an easy target when you look at the competition.
“In 2014, I was experiencing the vast majority of the rallies on the calendar for the first time,” admitted Meeke. “I learned a lot and I realised just how important it is to rack up the miles. Generally speaking, all drivers make progress in their second full season and I hope I’m no exception to the rule. My goal is to fight for one of the leading places.”
Meeke is leading the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team with support coming from the retained Mads Østberg, and in this season's opener, Meeke managed to won two of the final day's three stages to finish 10th overall - a great result considering that he crashed out on Friday and was languishing in 21st place at the start of Sunday! Meeke was quickest in his Citroen on the first of the day's three stages, a 10km run up the Col de Braus, and also in the steep descent into St Laurent, taking it by 1.1 seconds from team-mate Sebastien Loeb.
Following Mikko Hirvonen’s retirement, Elfyn Evans has Estonian Ott Tänaknow alongside him at the M-Sport World Rally Team, and the question is "Is that first podium finish a long way away for Evans?"
Not so, as last year he managed 4th place in both Mexico and Germany. “I'm really looking forward to this year,” he said. “We've had a great first season and gained so much knowledge and experience of the events. There's going to be a lot of hard work – analysing all of the data that we've collected from all of the rallies – but I'm confident that we can continue to progress and improve our speed and performance on each event.”
Elfyn Evans in his M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC finished a very credible 7th place overall - 5 minutes 23.7 seconds behind the eventual winner, Sébastien Ogier.
As for the other competitors and their teams, there is a familiar look to the WRC line-up, even though some of the liveries have changed since last season. Sébastien Ogier once again spearheads the title-winning Volkswagen Motorsport three-pronged attack in a new-look, second-generation Polo R WRC, and proved his credentials by winning the Monte Carlo Rally again, leaving last year's runner-up Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen in 2nd and 3rd respectively. The Frenchman has his sights set on a third consecutive drivers’ crown and has to fuel his aspirations.
Having started so well, and considering his history, Ogier will start as favourite for further title glory come Wales Rally GB in November, but there is great hope for both Evans and Meeke, not least from Ben Taylor, Managing Director of Wales Rally GB.
“The start of every new season always brings fresh hopes and excitement but this year is shaping up to be very special for British rallying. There’s no substitute for experience in this sport and, now with a full campaign under their belts, we can expect both Elfyn and Kris to be even closer to the front. We haven’t had a British WRC winner since Colin McRae triumphed on the Safari Rally back in 2002 – that’s a long drought that could be over by the time the teams reach Wales in November.”
This year’s Wales Rally GB will take place at a new base in North Wales where most of the spectacular action once again will take place on the fast, flowing Welsh forest tracks, rated by many to be the best rally stages in the world, refinements and changes are made to the route every year. The full route will be published later in the year, but it is sure to be as exciting as the past years have been.