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Subaru rally driver Chris Atkinson tackles his final tarmac test of the year when the World Rally Championship moves to Ireland this weekend.

Rally Ireland is making its debut as a round of the WRC. Atkinson competed in the a pilot event in the region in a Group N production class car last year, but this time the Gold Coast driver will behind the wheel of the powerful Impreza WRC2007.

The exact stages have never been rallied before and the Queenslander knows that it will produce plenty of challenges.

“Rally Ireland is a totally different event, not just in terms of the bumpy surface,” Atkinson said. “Being a new round it’s very difficult to prepare for. We’ve driven the route in a Group N car, but the extra speed of the WRC car is bound to make it very different”

“When everything comes up faster, it becomes more difficult as you have to process the information faster, and when it is all new that is the hard part”

“The surface is half asphalt and half gravel, which means we have to use an unique setup. We actually set the car up for the wet to get the compromise between the two surfaces, and the high chance of rain. Rather than when the asphalt gets wet and slippery, it’s when the asphalt is totally dry that you lose time.”

Subaru World Rally Team operations director, Paul Howarth, is in no doubt that the rally will be one of the toughest events for the year.

“Rally Ireland is very different to a normal Irish tarmac event, as they’ve come up with a unique route,” Howarth said.

“It’s very narrow, only one car width in places, and very high speed, especially in the beginning section. There are a lot of junctions and switchbacks from main roads to narrow back routes. The roads are often damp, and it is very easy to go off.”

“Two elements will be absolutely critical: tyre choice and staying on the road.”

“It’s very hard to maintain tyre temperature, and as it’s so narrow there is only one line. All it takes is to touch the grass with the rear and the car will be instantly sideways. It’s so unforgiving, and if the pace is fast then we can expect a similar rate of attrition to Japan.”

The small town of Sligo, home to just 18,000 inhabitants, will play host to Rally HQ and the service park. It is located approximately 200 kilometres from Belfast, where the event will get underway with a Super Special in the grounds of Stormont castle on Thursday night.

The weather in November is unpredictable with the ever-present chance of rain. The surface is usually damp, and a mix of asphalt and gravel, meaning the cars are setup in a totally different way to any other asphalt event.

Despite the fact that dusk will fall at around 1630hrs, the short spectator stage in Belfast will be the only stage that the lead WRC cars will start in the dark.

Although the total liaison distance is only 853.91km (excluding travel to Belfast for SS1), the event route takes in eight counties, both to the north and the south of the island, and crosses between Ulster and the Republic of Ireland, making it a very diverse event.

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