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The second half of the 12-round FIA World Rally Championship starts today with the toughest event of the year, the Acropolis Rally of Greece.

The stakes are high for the Citroen and Ford factory drivers, but not only because of the expected conditions.

The previous round in Italy last month finally saw Ford stop a five-event winning streak by Citroen’s Sebastien Loeb.

The five-time world champion could finish only fourth in the Rally d’Italia Sardegna behind Ford driver Jarri-Matti Latvala, his teammate Mikko Hirvonen and Citroen privateer Petter Solberg.

Despite a healthy 17-point lead in the drivers’ standings, Loeb insists he will be straight back on the attack in the Acropolis and aiming for his 53rd career victory. The Ford duo is equally determined to maintain its breakthrough form and divert Loeb’s charge toward a record sixth straight title.

“Yes, I will be out to win. As we saw in Sardinia nothing can ever be taken for granted and we can’t afford to ease up in any way,” said Loeb, who won last year by preserving his tyres.

“Our (Citroen) C4 and Pirelli tyres are very strong, but you’re talking here about very extreme conditions, especially when the weather is hot.”

On event eve, however, the top form belonged not to Loeb or Latvala, but to 19-year-old Russian Evgeny Novikov and his Australian co-driver Dale Moscatt.

The pair’s performance for the Citroen Junior team in winning a shakedown session on Thursday was impressive, but perhaps not surprising after their career-best fifth place in Sardinia.

Virtually all teams devoted their shakedown to refining suspension settings for the rocky mountain tracks and searing heat that make the legendary Acropolis Rally a car-breaker – success in Greece is all about strength, reliability and speed.

Temperatures above 30 degrees C place high demands on engines and gearboxes, especially on the relatively slow mountain climbs that produce little cooling airflow,, WRC.com reports.

Drivers and co-drivers can expect an uncomfortable weekend for the same reasons and will be relying on fitness and fluid intake to perform at peak level.

The 56th Acropolis brings teams closer again to their journey Down Under for Repco Rally Australia, the 10th round of the WRC which will be staged in the New South Wales Northern Rivers on 3-6 September.

Australia will run, like Greece, on gravel roads rather than the tarmac stages used in some European events. However, while teams have had 56 years to acclimatise and adapt to the conditions on the Acropolis, the inaugural east coast edition of Repco Rally Australia will be a new challenge for all competitors.

The result in Greece may see Australia become a pivotal round in the Production World Rally Championship. Repco Rally Australia will be the next and penultimate round in the shorter P-WRC calendar.

The P-WRC is balanced on a knife edge, with 2006 champion Nasser Al-Attiyah (Subaru) of Qatar ahead of Patrik Sandell (Skoda) and Armindo Araujo (Mitsubishi) in a battle in which the drivers and their manufacturers each are separated by just three points in their respective championships.

And the P-WRC round on the Acropolis Rally also will be the stage for another competition set to feature in Australia, the Pirelli Star Driver program.

Five young drivers from around the world, selected in this year’s inaugural program to develop potential World Champions, will tackle the Acropolis in identical Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X cars. Expert trainers will be on hand to assist in areas including sports nutrition, planning, preparation and pace-noting.

Meanwhile, local candidates for next year’s Pirelli Star Driver intake are preparing to compete for a single place to be won during Repco Rally Australia. The rally will host a shootout between up to 14 drivers for the right to represent the Asia Pacific region among the five overall winners.

Selection for the Pirelli Star Driver program is the richest prize for young drivers in world rallying. With an estimated value of up to $1 million, it provides winners with a fully-supported entry in six WRC rounds, including a car, skill and personal development training and all travel costs.

The Acropolis Rally, headquartered on the coast at Loutraki, about 80 kms east of Athens, will cover 371 kms over a total of 17 competitive stages.
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