THE CHALLENGE

A record-breaking entry of 30 Super 2000 cars from Abarth, Skoda, Peugeot, PROTON and M-Sport will contest the last all-asphalt event of the 2010 Intercontinental Rally Challenge season in Sanremo next week as the battle for the prestigious drivers' title reaches a crucial point on the testing mountain roads of Italy's Imperia province.

The event, which is running for a 52nd time this year, is one of the most famous on the international rallying calendar and also the most demanding, thanks to its blend of night stages run over narrow and undulating passes. The competitive action is contained within a 23-hour window, which traditionally puts a huge strain on car and crew.

Indeed, competitors get little opportunity to savour the delights of the glamorous Italian Riviera town, with its restaurants, bars and casino such is the intensity of competition.

After leaving the permanent service park located in the grounds of the town's old railway station overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on Friday afternoon, drivers tackle two stages, Coldirodi and Bignone before returning to service in Sanremo.

The Coldirodi and Bignone runs are then repeated, albeit split by the Apricale stage. Following a regroup and service halt in Sanremo, crews face the daunting Ronde stage, a 44-kilometre monster, which combines the three stages that form the second loop and gets underway after dark at 22:09hrs local time.

A short overnight halt later and competition resumes with the final five stages split by service in Sanremo. The tests are not for the faint-hearted either with just the 1.73-kilometre Bajardo stage less than 22 kilometres in length.

The stages feature fast and flowing sections, frequent changes of rhythm and blind and open corners with rapid climbs and descents commonplace. The ability to find the optimum 'racing' line and maintain a high level of speed are essential for recording competitive stage times. The road surface is predominantly smooth, albeit with some sections of broken asphalt. The tests on day two are known for providing better grip than on day one, particularly following recent resurfacing work on part of the route.

As with all mountain-based rallies, the weather is changeable and unpredictable and that can make tyre choice a lottery. In 2006, when Sanremo hosted the last of four IRC pilot events, torrential rain forced organisers to cancel the opening leg. Conversely, last year's rally was held in bright sunshine. However, even if there is no rain, the sections under tree cover can be notoriously slippery due to the sap being dragged out of the trees.

The undulating nature of the roads places a great strain on the cars with the engine, transmission and brakes all being subjected to a heavy pounding.

As well as counting as round 10 of the 12-round IRC, Rallye Sanremo forms part of the prestigious and highly-competitive Italian Rally Championship.

Rallye Sanremo marks the fourth time this year that the Colin McRae IRC Flat Out Trophy will be presented. The award is handed to the most spectacular driver who best embodies the spirit of the rallying legend on rounds of the IRC. Its recipient is chosen by a panel consisting of IRC's Motorsport Development Manager Jean-Pierre Nicolas, Gilbert Roy, the Director of Editorial and Programme Development at Eurosport Events, and Jim McRae, Colin's father.

THE COMPETITORS
    
Juho Hanninen and Jan Kopecky may well be team-mates at Skoda Motorsport but the Fabia-mounted drivers are locked in a close title battle. Hanninen, from Finland, is in the driving seat following Kopecky's crash on the previous round, last month's Barum Czech Rally Zlin, which means that Kopecky must win in Italy to maintain his bid for top championship honours.

Hanninen, 29, has upped his pace on asphalt significantly in 2010, but Kopecky still has the edge when it comes to driving on sealed-surfaces and starts as one of the favourites for victory.

As well as contesting the IRC this year, the Czech has been tackling the Italian championship, thereby giving him a greater knowledge of the terrain but also the fearsome competition the local drivers will provide.

Most notable of these is veteran Paolo Andreucci, who finished second on June's Rally d'Italia-Sardegna in his Peugeot 207 S2000 and was a winner in Sanremo in 2006. He heads a rejuvenated Peugeot assault, which includes Kris Meeke, the IRC champion and last year's Sanremo winner, Frenchman Bryan Bouffier, Belgian talent Thierry Neuville and Portugal's Bruno Magalhaes, who returns to the IRC after skipping the last round.

The Abarth line-up of Giandomenico Basso and Luca Rossetti is packed with experience and potency. The pair, both IRC event winners in the past, will have the wide-track suspension Grande Punto at their disposal and are set to shine. Basso missed last year's event to contest a clashing European championship round so will be anxious to add to his 2008 Sanremo victory. Former IRC 2WD Cup frontrunner Manuel Villa and the experienced Renato Travaglia are two other Abarth runners in Sanremo.

When it comes to experience few drivers in the field possess as much knowledge of the Ligurian roads as Gilles Panizzi, who returns to frontline rallying in a works PROTON Satria Neo. The 44-year-old from France has won in Sanremo on three occasions and will be hoping his renowned pace and expertise on asphalt will provide a change of fortune for the Malaysian firm, not to mention a huge buzz for the thousands of fans lining the route. Capable Northern Irishman Niall McShea will continue in the second car.

Like Panizzi, Freddy Loix also has extensive knowledge of the Sanremo stages and will be anxious to maintain his staggering 100 per cent winning record in the third factory Fabia on what is likely to be his fourth and final outing of the IRC season. The Belgian prepared for Sanremo by finishing second on his domestic championship Omloop van Vlaanderen rally recently. Other Fabia drivers on the entry include Skoda UK Motorsport's Guy Wilks, a three-time podium finisher this season and Skoda Italia's young gun Marco Signor.

Norway's Andreas Mikkelsen is the lead M-Sport Ford Fiesta driver and is highly rated. Fellow Fiesta youngster Umberto Scandola, from Italy, also has potential, while Andrea Navarra has won in the IRC in the past. Andrea Perego is the highest-seeded Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer driver. However, for the first time on the IRC this year there will be no Subaru Imprezas in action.

Some of the names to watch out for in the IRC 2WD Cup include Honda Civic drivers Sandro Sottile and Laszlo Vizin, former class champion Marco Cavigioli and M-Sport Ford Fiesta R2 runner Harry Hunt, who claimed IRC two-wheel drive glory during the visit to Sardinia in June.

THE EXPECTATIONS
   
Paolo Andreucci (Italy), Peugeot 207 S2000: "We have some unfinished business following Sardinia where we had a chance of winning only for a small mechanical set-up problem to drop us back. I'm very optimistic because we proved competitive in Sardinia against a strong field and have a very competitive package with my car and the Pirelli tyres."

Giandomenico Basso (Italy), Abarth Grande Punto S2000: "Sanremo is a very tricky rally, with lots of corners and few straights. We will have the wide-track Abarth Grande Punto, which is an improvement on the previous car, especially in the dry. First and foremost I will be looking at my rivals in the Italian championship but I think it will be very close with the regular IRC guys as well."

Kris Meeke (United Kingdom), Peugeot 207 S2000: "It's a monumental event, the biggest challenge in the IRC and one of the most prestigious. Winning it las t year was definitely one of the highlights of my season. Day one is about staying out of trouble but day two is when you make up time although you need to find the right rhythm and be so concentrated." 

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