With four events of another enthralling Intercontinental Rally Challenge season remaining, the battle for the prestigious title is tightly poised as the series heads to Czech Republic next week for the 40th running of the all-asphalt Barum Czech Rally Zlin.

Juho Hanninen tops the drivers' standings after eight rounds but his lead over Skoda Motorsport team-mate Jan Kopecky has been trimmed to just seven points. And Kopecky, a recognised asphalt specialist and the winner in Zlin last season, knows victory on his home event would erode Hanninen's advantage still further after he outscored the Finn on the last IRC round in Madeira.

Kopecky is relishing the opportunity of competing in front of the Czech spectators, who traditionally flock to the event in huge number. However, he is the first to admit the rally is one of the most difficult on the IRC calendar due to the proliferation of high-speed blasts through forests and woodland, sections of broken Tarmac and the bumpy nature of some of the roads. Considered daunting by some drivers, the rally demands huge commitment and extremely accurate pacenotes.

A mainstay of the IRC since its inception in 2007, the event gets underway with a superspecial stage through the streets of host city Zlin on Friday 27 August. Run at night, the course is effectively three laps of the city's central area and crosses over a railway line. Crews are released from the start in regular intervals, which means there will be approximately seven cars on the concrete wall-lined course at any one time.

Saturday's opening leg features four stages, each run twice. They include the 29.09-kilometre Trojak test, one of several stages being run in an opposite direction to last year as part of efforts by the event organisers to keep the route fresh for the competitors. Indeed, only 20 per cent of the stages have not been altered since 2009.

Day two follows a similar format to Saturday with four stages run twice. Like Saturday's Biskupice stage, the Velky Orechov test, the penultimate stage of the rally, was last used in 2004, which could hand an advantage to some of the more experienced competitors on the bulging 130-car capacity entry list.

Service on both days of the rally is in Otrokovice, 11 kilometres from Zlin.

Although ambient temperatures usually hover around 30 degrees centigrade during rally week, heavy rain showers are commonplace, particularly at night. With much of the route running under tree cover, the stage surface can become unpredictable in places. The tree cover can also hinder visibility with shadows forming on the roads and sunlight breaking through the trees in some areas.

The event marks the third time 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 this season. 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, who will be in Zlin to make a donation to a local good cause.

With victories on all three of the pure asphalt events run so far in the IRC this season, Skoda's Fabia S2000 is being tipped as the car to beat in the Czech Republic, the marque's home rally. Several Fabias will be running the Facelift update, which features a wider track that has enhanced the car's handling. They include the factory versions of Juho Hanninen, Jan Kopecky, Freddy Loix and Pavel Valousek, the leader of the Czech championship.

Hanninen heads Kopecky by seven points in the title standings. A two-time winner this season, Hanninen prefers driving on gravel events. Kopecky, who won Rally Islas Canarias earlier this season, thrives on asphalt rallies and will take the start on the back of a successful pre-event test.

Like Hanninen, Loix has also triumphed on two IRC rounds this year and his first place finish last time out in Madeira put him joint top with Kris Meeke on the list of all-time IRC winners with five victories. Loix is only contesting a handful of IRC events this season so isn't a factor in the title battle. However, the Belgian's pace on asphalt means he will be a contender to repeat his Zlin victory of 2008.

Peugeot UK's Meeke arrives in Zlin knowing nothing less than victory will do if he is to successfully defend his IRC crown following a season plagued by non-finishes. However, even if he did better the second place he achieved in Czech Republic in 2009, the Northern Irishman admits it will be hard to win the title for a second time.

Barum Czech Rally Zlin marks Guy Wilks' first start in the IRC since his crash on Rally d'Italia-Sardegna in early June, which left him with two fractured lumbar vertebrae. It will also be the first time he has driven his Skoda UK Motorsport Fabia Facelift in competition. The Briton is almost back to full fitness although he is still reporting some slight stiffness in his back after training.

Andreas Mikkelsen is the lead M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 exponent on the entry and the Norwegian has the pace to run at the front of the field. He made his IRC debut in Zlin last season and will be eager to make the most of that knowledge.

The PROTON R3 Rally Team fields an all-new driver line-up following its seasonal debut on the Geko Ypres Rally in late June. Replacing Chris Atkinson and Alister McRae in the squad's Satria Neo S2000's will be Irishman Keith Cronin and Northern Ireland's Niall McShea. Cronin is the defending British champion, while McShea has extensive international competition experience.

Thierry Neuville returns to IRC action for the first time since finishing third in Ypres. Without the opportunity to test prior to the rally, the Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg driver will face a busy pre-event shakedown on Friday as he looks to fine-tune the set-up of his Kronos Racing-run 207.

Peugeot's challenge in Czech Republic will be boosted by the rapid Bryan Bouffier, who will drive a factory-backed 207. He was due to compete in Zlin last season but was forced to withdraw after an engine problem in shakedown.

Franz Wittmann Jr's last IRC appearance ended with a car-wrecking crash in Sardinia but the Austrian is back in his fully rebuilt 207 as he hunts his first finish of 2010. Also at the wheel of 207s are Turkish lady driver Burcu Cetinkaya and Brazil's Daniel Oliveira.

Vaclav Pech Jr is the leading Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer driver, while Vojtech Stajf heads the Subaru Impreza runners. Other Czechs in action include three-time Zlin winner Roman Kresta, who will drive a Fabia S2000, and Fiesta pilot Jaromir Tarabus.

The IRC 2WD Cup will be hotly contested by several runners from the Clio R3 European Trophy, including series leader Pierre Campana and Dutchman Kevin Abbring, the IRC 2WD Cup winner in Ypres. They are eligible to score drivers' points on three events this season.

Other drivers capable of success are former two-wheel class champion Marco Cavigioli, Briton Harry Hunt and Honda Civic Type-R competitors Laszlo Vizin and Martin Kangur.

Jan Kopecky (Czech Republic), Skoda Fabia S2000: "Of course I hope to win and I know it would be very good for my championship chances if I did. But it's a very difficult rally with fast sections very close to the trees. We have found a good set-up and have good event knowledge."

Kris Meeke (United Kingdom), Peugeot 207 S2000: "A podium finish is the best we can hope for. We'll do our best to challenge for the victory as we always do but it's going to be near on impossible against the Skodas, which seem to have the edge at the moment."

Frederic Miclotte (Belgium, Freddy Loix's co-driver), Skoda Fabia S2000: "Jan Kopecky is going to be really fast because it's his home rally. But we also know the stages so we will be trying to win but everything will have to be perfect for that to happen. It won't be easy." 
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