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Subaru rally driver Chris Atkinson starts a hectic fortnight, with the World Rally Championship taking in Rally Catalunya in Spain this weekend, followed quickly by the French round just five days later.
 
The back-to-back tarmac events will be a big challenge for both Atkinson and his Subaru Impreza WRC2008 as there has been no testing of the new car on the surface since the German round in August.
 
Rally Germany was the Impreza’s tarmac debut and Atkinson and team-mate Petter Solberg struggled to match the pace of their rivals – the Citroens and Fords. That weekend the Norwegian finished fifth, with the Queenslander sixth, and the team concedes they may not make the podium again this event as there has been no further tarmac testing done by the drivers.
 
David Lapworth, SWRT’s technical director, says the two events in two weeks will help with the car’s development for 2009, but it is still early days for the Impreza WRC2008 on tarmac.
 
“We have had limited testing (on tarmac) as a result of our focus on gravel development to date, so we must be realistic about how far through our refinement process we are with the new car.”
 
The car was tested by Markko Martin in its development prior to launch, and the roads used for the tarmac set-up were far closer to what the drivers will experience in Spain than what they had in Germany.
 
“These two tarmac rallies in two weeks will boost us massively, as we learned a great deal just from Rally Germany,” Lapworth said. “We’ll be using a combination of Markko’s base setup from his early tests, and improvements we have been able to make after Germany to take another step forward on tarmac.
 
Rally Catalunya is often said to be the closest the WRC gets to a circuit race, owing to its smooth and flowing asphalt surface. Most of the rally route has been resurfaced over the years, making the roads clean and grippy, in contrast to the dirty asphalt at Rally Deutschland.
 
Despite cutting his rallying teeth on gravel, Atkinson has showed a liking for tarmac in recent seasons and produced a third placing in Monte Carlo at the start of the year, and is looking forward to the coming fortnight.
 
“Spain is a very different event to Germany,” Atkinson said. “The roads are wide, smooth and high-grip, and you can carry a lot of corner speed because of this.
 
“It’s about the highest lateral load we get all season, and whilst it doesn’t really affect us because we train for it, you notice it for sure inside the car.
“Because it’s smooth it gets very slippery when it rains as the water doesn’t run away, but when you get a series of corners right, it’s a great feeling.”
 
The Australian currently sits fourth on the WRC points’ table on 40 points. Defending champion, Sebastien Loeb, leads the way on 86 points, closely followed by Mikko Hirvonen on 78. Both are well clear of rest of the contenders, and even third placed Dani Sordo (51) has an 11 point buffer over Atkinson (40) after Rally New Zealand.
 
Rally Catalunya is based in Europe’s largest theme park, PortAventura, in the holiday destination of Salou, which lies 110 kilometres south-west of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast.
 
Temperatures are expected to rest between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius, but rain can arrive quickly and unexpectedly in the region.
 
The organisers have made several changes to the stages since last year, with the inclusion of two new speed tests on Saturday. A total of 18 stages, including the renowned El Montmeil and La Serra d’Almos sections, take crews through 353.62 kilometres of competition after a ceremonial start on Thursday night that.
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