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Estonian Ott Tänak and San Marino’s Alex Raschi have won the FIA European Rally Championship Pirelli Star Driver Shoot Out, held in Freistadt, Austria. The two-day event finished with a presentation to the two successful drivers on the evening of Saturday, 19 September.
Tänak, 21, is recognised as one of the sport’s most exciting prospects for the future – he is already receiving career guidance and mentoring from five-time World Rally winner, fellow countryman Markko Märtin. Equally, 22-year-old Raschi’s performance across the two days of competition was enough to convince a high-calibre judging panel of his own ability. Raschi, from San Marino, is currently leading the R3 class in the Italian Rally Championship. Both drivers will tackle six rounds of next year’s FIA World Rally Championship in a front-running Group N car.

In addition to this unrivalled driving programme, Tänak and Raschi will also receive guidance on fitness, nutrition, sports psychology, training and media awareness throughout their 12 months as Pirelli Star Drivers.

Unlike the other Shoot Outs in the African, Asia-Pacific and Middle East Rally Championships, the competitors in the European event faced a dedicated rally, organised by Rallye Club Mühlviertel and based in Freistadt, Austria. The drivers and their co-drivers all contested three stages on asphalt and three on gravel. Their driving ability – as well as their physical capacity and media awareness – was judged over the last two days by World Rally Championship stars Petter Solberg and Markku Alen; Pirelli’s Motorsport Director Paul Hembery; world-renowned talent scout Timo Jouhki; influential British journalist Anthony Peacock and rally organiser João Passos.

The Shoot Out began Friday morning, when the drivers went through the media interview where they were asked about their past and present achievements in the sport as well as a general understanding of news in the FIA World Rally Championship. From there, they were checked by a medical expert, who assessed each driver on their level of fitness. The final part of day one was a presentation, when they drove across the start ramp and picked their allotted numbers for the driving competition on Saturday.

The drivers were faced with a total of more than 40 kilometres of competitive asphalt driving, before a lunchtime service halt. This was followed by 37 kilometres of competitive driving on gravel. Those six stages were all observed by the judging panel, with the actual stage times only comprising one element of the result.

Neither Raschi nor Tänak have vast experience in the sport. Raschi, co-driven by Italian Rudy Pollet, started rallying in 2005 and is currently enjoying his most successful Italian Rally Championship campaign to date. Tänak, co-driven by fellow countryman Kristo Kraag, is currently dominating the Estonian rally scene in a Subaru Impreza run by Märtin’s own team. He made his debut in the FIA World Rally Championship on the Rally of Portugal earlier this season – where he posted a fastest stage time in Group N – and then contested the Neste Oil Rally Finland in August. He once again impressed, but failed to finish when steering failure sent him off the road.

Enjoying his first experience of judging on a Pirelli Star Driver Shoot Out, Paul Hembery said: “In any such Shoot Out, reaching a final decision is always difficult given that the drivers are all of different ages and levels of experience, and at the wheel of different cars. However, at the end there are two clear winners that the jury unanimously elected after taking into consideration a variety of different factors. We placed great emphasis on driving style and commitment over the course of the evaluation, and we have ended up with a pair of worthy winners. Both drivers are of an age where they have accumulated enough experience to make the most of this opportunity, but they still have plenty of scope for further improvement. We look forward to seeing them out on the stages of the FIA World Rally Championship next year.”

Understandably elated following the announcement of their achievements, the drivers made their first comments as Pirelli Star Drivers. Tänak said: “It is a really big privilege for me to win and it’s come at exactly the right time, as otherwise it would be really difficult for me to carry on next year. I’m grateful to have this opportunity. Of course I was a bit nervous but I just tried to focus on the job and do my best. I’m sure this opportunity will give me the chance to improve in the future.”

Raschi added: “I’m absolutely delighted. It’s come as a very big surprise and pleasure. I would like to thank everyone who showed faith in me and it’s a reward for all our perseverance throughout the last few seasons. I’ve still got a lot of progress to make but now I have got the possibility to learn from the best in the business and take my dream a step further.”

The Pirelli Star Driver line-up for 2010 is now 80 per cent complete, with four of the five drivers decided. Tänak and Raschi join Hayden Paddon (New Zealand), who won the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship nomination on Rally Australia earlier this month. The FIA African Rally Championship nomination was confirmed at the conclusion of the Rwanda Mountain Gorilla Rally on Sunday, with Kenyan Peter Horsey taking the honours.

The last of the five drivers – from the FIA Middle East Rally Championship – will be selected on the Dubai International Rally on 3-5 December.

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