22.09.2004 Fiat Auto UK AND their trio of exciting young stars, pitched themselves onto the world rally stage at the weekend, straight into the mud, rain AND fog that is synonymous with the Wales Rally GB
Fiat Auto UK and their trio of exciting young stars, pitched themselves onto the world rally stage at the weekend, straight into the typically awful weather conditions that this event is notorious for.
Buoyed by the overwhelming success of the inaugural Stilo Cup UK, a series that has placed the Fiat brand firmly back on the British rallying map, Fiat Auto UK decided to take the ultimate test and put together a team to contest the Wales Rally GB, Britain's notoriously tough round of World Rally Championship.
As this was an effort carried aloft in a great part by the sheer enthusiasm of its management, a youthful line-up of drivers were drafted in to compliment the youthful nature of the Stilo, a car which, with its chunky, no-nonsense lines, seems designed to be translated into a rally machine.
Team leader, and elder statesman, at just 22-years-old, was Leon Pesticcio, who despite the surname and dark looks, claims to hail from the Welsh town of Bridgend, although the expected accent seems to be somewhat missing. This would be for Leon, and co-driver Timothy Sturla, their first experience of rallying a Stilo in anger. Leon has already gained a reputation for being ultra-rapid, always on the edge, or very often over it. Fiat would be happy to get their car back in one piece at the end of the event, but they certainly wouldn't be betting on it. Fear is a word this young driver does not comprehend.
Next up was 23-year-old Andrea Perego. This softly spoken, enthusiastic Italian would be the team's dark horse, the youngster first witnessing the dark, brooding Welsh forests, which have destroyed many a big reputation over the years, at the rally's media day just week's previously. He would be the real wild card.
Finally, another Welshman, this time the Stilo Cup UK points leader at the halfway point, and the 'official' baby of the team, 19-year-old Chris Davies from Abergavenny, completed the trio. Chris, is a calm, thoughtful driver, who combines a natural pace with an unflustered manner. Amazing as it may be to say it about a driver still in his teens, but Chris, along with co-driver Nathan Parry, would be a strong bet to bring his car to the finish, quickly, and in one piece.
So in the forbidding forests of Wales, Leon, Andrea and Chris, would be strapped into their official Fiats, to roar off in the footsteps of the legends. Legends that litter the marque's glorious rally history. Legends such as the tall, lanky, German superstar, Walter Rohrl, perhaps the ultimate rally driver: blindingly quick, ultra-smooth, technically perfect, a driver who carefully considered every inch of the road while at the same time traversing it flat-out.
On Friday morning we joined the Fiat Auto UK team at their service HQ tucked away in the sprawling Felindre service area, just north of Swansea, a huge temporary village that was acting as the rally base for the teams.
The event had started the previous evening with a spectator-friendly, 2.45-km "Super Special" stage at Cardiff. The format, designed for TV, would see the cars, running in pairs, race parallel to each other. With the stopwatch running and nowhere to hide, the Stilos would be put to the test for the first time.
By the time Leon, start number 82, took to the track, dozens of cars, many of them much more powerful four wheel drive machines, had blasted around the course, tearing the loose surface up as they went.
Leon posted a 2:27.1, a stunning time in his first ever timed stage at the wheel of a Stilo. He eclipsed several of the more powerful rally-bred Super 1600 cars, as well as a host of four wheel drive machines, Mitsubishis and Subarus, cars born to tackle this type of stage.
Snapping at Leon's heels, Andrea turned in a 2:28.3. Just over a second adrift, the young Italian instantly making himself at home in these new conditions, while Chris rounded out a highly successful opening stage with a 2:30.9. As the cars returned the short distance up the M4 Motorway to overnight Parc Ferme, after just one test the Stilos were lying 64th, 65th and 70th on overall classification, as well as leading their class 1-2-3.
With the 'Super Special' out of the way, the rally proper kicked off at the crack of dawn on Friday, the competitors thrust straight into the inhospitable Welsh forests, to tackle the 29.98-km 'Brechfa' stage.
In an major effort to create more favourable conditions, and increase the event's daylight hours, the Wales Rally had been shifted up the WRC calendar to September, well away from its traditional November date. However, the Welsh God's long ago decreed that the competitors on this toughest of tests, would have every element imaginable thrown at them, and so this attempt by the rally organiser's to improve matters would ultimately prove to be futile. Friday morning saw the unseasonably mild weather vanish, and instead the familiar faces of mud, rain, mist and fog awaited the competitors.
Chris Davies bounced and bobbed his way to being quickest over the rutted tracks of the opening stage of the day, Brechfa, the gravel surface having been completely torn apart by the powerful four wheel drive WRC machines doing battle at the head of the field. His time was 21:48.2.
Andrea was already facing a real baptism of fire in these conditions. However, after 21 minutes and 53.1 seconds spent smashing his car over the terrifying tracks, he completed his ordeal, just fractions behind Chris.