For this week only, one of international motorsport's biggest and noisiest circuses has taken over a small market town in mid-Wales. The FIA World Rally Championship has descended upon Builth
Wells for the 13th and final round of the season.
Unlike the Formula One Drivers' championship, which was all done and dusted with four races remaining, the WRC title race has gone down to the wire. Two drivers – seven times World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb and perennial runner-up Mikko Hirvonen – dressed for battle, preparing for the start of the rally this afternoon.
With the central service park based at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Showground in Builth Wells (rally folk can do without the glamour and spotlessness of the typical F1 paddock), the season finale burst into action with two runs over the Great Orme stage near Llandudno in north Wales.
A limestone headland that juts out into the Irish Sea, the Great Orme is circumnavigated by the Marine Drive, a bucking and weaving road that clings to the edge of the vast rock. With a sheer cliff face to the left, a crumbling wall to the right and a breathtaking drop into icy water beyond, the Great Orme is a stage worthy of the famous Rallye Monte Carlo and a fitting location for the start of what could be the most exciting Wales Rally GB for a generation.
So if this weekend's event is so exciting, so pivotal in crowning a world champion and so likely to be remembered as a classic, why on earth is this probably the first you've read about it?
The WRC has struggled to retain any kind of profile within the mainstream British media in recent years. Even the specialist motoring press has ceased to cast its gaze over the series, while television coverage is limited to obscure, pay-to-view channels.
For the many tens of thousands of passionate spectators who'll brave the unappealing climes of a wintry Welsh forest throughout the weekend, however, memories from Wales Rally GB 2011 will be treasured. That's why the event's modest reach is a real pity.
The issues extend beyond those faced by the WRC as a series. Time was when the British round of the championship journeyed throughout the land, pulling in millions of spectators during the course of a week. Although organisers have worked hard to ensure that the 2011 running spans a wider geographical area, the rally still doesn't cross the border into England. Having moved away from its former base in Cardiff, it now doesn't pass within 40 miles of a major city.
"Moving the rally from Cardiff to Builth Wells was far from a positive move," says Gerard Quinn, Ford of Europe motorsport director. "The event will be hampered by where it's located. If the rally went to somewhere like Chester, the catchment area – with places like Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester – would be much greater.
"I wouldn't say the WRC has done enough to remain attractive tomanufacturers in recent years, but it is moving in the right direction. 2011 has been very positive under the new regulations."
Indeed, much has been invested in turning the ailing series around. The MINI World Rally Team will contest a full campaign in 2012, while Volkswagen will join the series from 2013; a higher profile within the mainstream media will surely follow. The WRC has a long and challenging road ahead of it, but at least it's delivering excitement from a sporting viewpoint.
There's a great deal to be thrilled about this weekend. Citroën's Loeb leads Ford ace Hirvonen in the drivers' standings by eight points with 28 still on offer. There are also more British interests by which to be enthused than there have been for many years. Not only are the Ford and MINI World Rally Teams run by British outfits (M-Sport and Prodrive respectively), but we also have two home-grown drivers to cheer.
Stobart Ford driver Matthew Wilson will be contesting his home event for the eighth time, with his sights trained on a top five finish, while MINI's Kris Meeke should be gunning for a podium position in his John Cooper Works WRC.
Once thing is for sure. On Sunday afternoon, something remarkable will happen on live television. Either Sebastien Loeb will clinch an unprecedented eighth title, or we'll see the crowning of a new world champion for the first time since 2004.
How to start in Rallying
Co-driving is the most accessible means of competing in rallying. You'll need military organisational discipline, a strong stomach and unwavering faith in whoever is in the driving seat, but it's a great way to immerse yourself in motorsport's most exciting discipline. If you align yourself with the right driver and approach it as a full-time job, you might eventually land yourself a six-figure pay packet.
For those who'd rather be twirling the steering wheel and dancing on the pedals, the Motor Sport Association has you covered with its Go Motorsport programme, which also covers marshalling and spectating as a means to get closer to the action.
The Kick Energy Pirelli Junior 1000 Rally Championship is establishing itself as a fine training ground for 14- to 16-year-olds. Teenagers in 1,000cc Nissan Micras and the like tear around on single venue events, learning the fundamental skills of rally driving. Safety and development are buzzwords for the series, which can be contested for little over £5,000 per season. See www.formula1000.co.uk for more details.
Women in Rallying
As with motorsport in general, rallying is a male-dominated sport. Women have enjoyed success on the stages, however, most notably Michele Mouton, who finished second in the World Rally Championship in 1982.
Mouton is now president of the FIA's Women and Motor Sport Commission (WMC), which seeks to facilitate the "full participation of women in all aspects of motorsport."
Australian Molly Taylor, who has received support from the WMC throughout this year, is competing this weekend in the FIA WRC Academy category. "We have a lot to look forward to. It's the last round of the season so there's nothing to lose," she said.
"I'm competing against the boys, but I feel equal to them. They don't treat me any differently. We're all rally drivers battling against each other."