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The fifth season of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge is set for a thrilling climax in Cyprus next week (3-5 November) when five drivers go head to head for the prestigious crown.

Juho Hanninen, Jan Kopecky, Freddy Loix, Andreas Mikkelsen and Thierry Neuville are all in the battle for the prestigious IRC title, which will be fought out on demanding mixed-surface stages live on Eurosport, the IRC’s media partner.

Peugeot France driver Bryan Bouffier has scored sufficient points to be in title contention but he completed his 10-event IRC campaign on the previous round in Scotland and will not be competing in Cyprus, leaving his five rivals to chase the honours.

The Cyprus Rally, which joined the IRC schedule for the first time in 2010, is unique compared to other IRC rounds in that it features asphalt and gravel stages with several runs including a combination of the two surfaces. This places a huge onus on driver skill and car set-up with competitors having to cope with compromised levels of handling and grip.

Cyprus used to be synonymous for its punishing tight and twisty rock-strewn gravel tracks but the inclusion of asphalt and smooth loose-surface roads has increased average speeds. However, the event remains a tough test for both crew and car with high ambient and ground temperatures adding to the challenge.

While last year’s Cyprus Rally was based around Limassol, this season’s event has switched to Pafos on the west of the picturesque Mediterranean island, which is famed for its stunning views and picturesque landscape.

The competitive action gets underway with an all-asphalt superspecial stage through the streets of Pafos on Thursday evening (3 November), with two repeated stages run on Saturday and three repeated tests run on Sunday. Service is located in Pafos on the shores of the Mediterranean.

In addition to counting as the final round of the main IRC, the Cyprus Rally will bring the curtain down on the new-for-2011 IRC Production Cup, plus the IRC 2WD Cup. All crews contesting the Cyprus Rally will be in contention for the prestigious Colin McRae IRC Flat Out Trophy, which is awarded to the most spectacular driver who best embodies the spirit of the rallying legend.

The Cyprus Rally serves as a precursor to the Cyprus Golden Stage Rally, which takes place on Sunday 6 November over a 20-kilometre mixed surface stage, the Golden Stage, run twice. Shown live on television around the world, a combined prize fund of 150,000 Euros is on offer to the various leading and category finishers and a thrilling battle for glory is expected between the IRC regulars and several local stars.

THE TITLE BATTLE
     
Never before has the battle for IRC glory been so close with an unprecedented five drivers starting the Cyprus Rally firmly in contention for the coveted crown. The following details who can win the title and how.

Jan Kopecky/Petr Stary (SKODA Motorsport Fabia S2000)
Current position: First
Current points: 131 (seventh best score: 15)
If he wins: he’s champion
If he’s second: champion unless any of the other four contenders win, or if Hanninen is third

Juho Hanninen/Mikko Markkula (SKODA Motorsport Fabia S2000)
Current position: Second
Current points: 125 (no score to drop)
If he wins: he’s champion
If he’s second: he’s champion if Kopecky doesn’t win
If he’s third: he’s champion if Kopecky and Neuville both fail to win
If he’s fourth: champion if none of the other contenders win, and if Kopecky isn’t second either

Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207 S2000)
Current position: Third
Current points: 115 (seventh best score: 8)
If he wins: he’s champion unless Hanninen finishes second
If he’s second: champion unless any of the other contenders win, or if one of Hanninen or Kopecky finish third

Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Floene (SKODA UK Motorsport Fabia S2000)
Current position: Fourth
Current points: 111.5 (seventh best score: 8)
If he wins: he’s champion if Hanninen is off the podium
If he’s second: he needs Loix and Neuville not to win, Kopecky outside the top four and Hanninen outside the top six

Freddy Loix/Frederic Miclotte (BFO-SKODA Rally Team Fabia S2000)
Current position: Sixth
Current points: 103 (no score to drop)
If he wins: he’s champion if Hanninen is off the podium
If he’s second: he needs Bouffier, Mikkelsen and Neuville not to win, Kopecky outside the top four and Hanninen outside the top six

Table of projected points from positions in Cyprus (using double points system)
JK: 1=166/2=152/3=146/4=140/5=136/6=132/7=131/8=131/9=131/10=131
JH: 1=175/2=161/3=155/4=149/5=145/6=141/7=137/8=133/9=129/10=127
TN: 1=157/2=143/3=137/4=131/5=127/6=123/7=119/7=115/9=115/10=115
AM: 1=153.5/2=139.5/3=133.5/4=127.5/5=123.5/6=119.5/7=115.5/8=111.5/9=111.5/10=111.5
FL: 1=153/2=139/3=133/4=127/5=123/6=119/7=115/8=111/9=107/10=105

THE COMPETITORS
    
The title contenders
Two mid-season victories have elevated Jan Kopecky to the top of the IRC drivers’ standings in his SKODA Motorsport Fabia Super 2000. But off-form showings in Sanremo and Scotland mean the Czech’s first IRC title is by no means a certainty.

Juho Hanninen, Kopecky’s SKODA team-mate is second in the table and firmly in contention. While a back-to-back IRC crown would cap a momentous season for Hanninen after he became Super 2000 world champion recently, the Finn is likely to support Kopecky’s title bid.

With Rallye Monte-Carlo winner Bryan Bouffier not in action in Cyprus Thierry Neuville is the sole Peugeot representative vying for IRC honours in his Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg entry. With wins in Corsica and Sanremo this year Neuville will be a threat but possesses limited experience on gravel.

Andreas Mikkelsen, 22, is the youngest of the title contenders and starts the event on the back of his maiden victory in Scotland for SKODA UK Motorsport. The Norwegian won the Golden Stage Rally in Cyprus last season and will benefit from taking part on the final round of the Italian Gravel Trophy in Italy this weekend.

BFO-SKODA Rally Team’s Freddy Loix was absent in Scotland to the extent his co-driver Frederic Miclotte believes it will be a tall order for the Belgians to win the crown. To add to the task, 40-year-old Loix hasn’t competed on gravel in the IRC since May 2009.

The challengers
Nasser Al-Attiyah returns to the IRC for the first time since he won the event in 2010 in his Autotek Motorsport M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000. The Qatari has won nine rallies in Cyprus and will be one of the favourites for victory alongside his Poland-based Italian co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini.

Patrik Sandell, who lines up in a SKODA Sweden Fabia, is one of the few IRC regulars with previous experience of competing in Cyprus having tackled the Cyprus Rally in 2009 when it formed a round of the world championship. Sandell showed pace in Scotland only for good fortune to elude him.

Like Sandell, Karl Kruuda also has Cyprus knowledge following his entry on the IRC qualifier in 2010. The Estonian teenager has impressed throughout his campaign despite his limited knowledge of four-wheel-drive machinery.

Rising star Mark Wallenwein and multiple German champion Matthias Kahle will represent SKODA Auto Deutschland in Cyprus. Kahle scored his first IRC points in Scotland, while Wallenwein has been upping his pace, and confidence, on recent events.

Burcu Cetinkaya will continue to build her experience behind the wheel of her Fabia S2000, whic h she shares with fellow Turk Cicek Guney in the IRC’s only all-female crew.

IRC Production Cup
With current leader Florian Gonon not competing in Cyprus, the battle for IRC Production Cup glory will be between Subaru’s Japanese ace Toshi Arai, in an R4-specification Impreza, and Marco Cavigioli, who drives a Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer and won the inaugural IRC 2WD Cup title in 2008. Laszlo Vizin will challenge for a podium finish, while Cypriot Nicos Thomas heads a strong local contingent of drivers in his Lancer. Ukrainian Volodymyr Pechenyk won the class on the Prime Yalta Rally in June but is an unknown quantity on gravel.

IRC 2WD Cup
Clio R3 pilots Stefano Albertini and Jean-Michel Raoux start the IRC 2WD Cup finale with Italian Albertini heading Raoux by 13 points. Albertini has taken two wins to the sole triumph scored by Raoux, while Raoux is an established gravel expert. The Frenchman has tackled an expanded campaign this season but has failed to score on the last two events. Hungarian Janos Puskadi, in a Honda Civic Type R, has a mathematical chance of the title but would need Albertini and Raoux to falter in order to win. Harry Hunt can no longer defend his title but will instead be hoping to end his season with victory in his DS3 R3T.

THE EXPECTATIONS

Nasser Al-Attiyah (M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000): “Cyprus is one of my favourite rallies and I have won there many times. It will be a very interesting rally this year because many of the drivers from the IRC will be there and they will be fast. But I have a lot of experience.”

Juho Hanninen (SKODA Motorsport Fabia S2000): “We have quite a good situation in the points and of course it would be nice to win the IRC title again. But winning won’t be easy and it was not the target for this year. The priority was to secure the manufacturers’ title for SKODA. We’ve done that now so we will see what happens in Cyprus.”

Nicos Thomas (Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX): “I know some parts of the stages and I expect them to be faster and more technical than last year. My deal to do this rally was quite late being agreed but it’s good to be taking part on my home rally. I am looking at the IRC Production Cup as my main target but you never know after that.”

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