Teams in the 2010 FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) move into unfamiliar territory when they tackle the asphalt roads of Rally Bulgaria for this weekend’s seventh round of the season from 8 to 11 July.

Rally Bulgaria celebrates its 41st year in 2010, yet is making its debut on this year’s 13-round WRC calendar. The new ‘world rally’ marks the end of the WRC’s six week summer break and is also the first of four upcoming tarmac rallies so several teams have spent time near the Balkan region during the break to prepare for the second half of the season.

Six-time WRC champion Sebastién Loeb currently heads the WRC driver’s standings, with the Citroen Total World Rally Team tarmac ace having established a comfortable 38-point lead in the six rounds to date. Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena have the statistical privilege of having never been beaten on a tarmac surface event since 2004 and are scheduled to start ahead of Citroen Junior Team colleague Sebastién Ogier who’s second on the leader-board.

“It’s true that we’ve always been pretty successful on asphalt,” said the 36-year-old Loeb. “Asphalt is our favourite hunting ground, but we have to tackle this rally in a humble state of mind. We’re going to discover a new route which will certainly have its own specific character. We’ll have to cope with the weather as stages at 2,000 metres above sea level can be upset by storms, and also there’s the choice between the Pirelli P-Zero softs and hards.”

Europe’s 16th largest nation, Bulgaria’s 7.5 million people occupy 110,994 sq km in south-east Europe beside the Black Sea [NB. New Zealand is 268,680 sq km]. The rally headquarters are in the ski resort of Borovets, while the service park is located 25 km to the east in the spa town of Dolna Banya.

Following Thursday evening’s ceremonial start in another ski resort, Samokov, Friday’s four special stages feature a double run through 59 km of twisting tarmac south-east of Dolna Banya. Saturday sees a 140 km run through the same area, with Sunday’s stages taking competitors to the north-east of Dolna Banya for a further 94 km of super-twisty asphalt mountain roads before the event wraps up in Borovets at 2pm.

A total of 49 teams have entered with some significant changes: Great Britain’s Chris Patterson joins Petter Solberg to replace co-driver Phil Mills who announced his retirement from the Solberg team just a month ago, and Henning Solberg switches to a Ford Fiesta S2000 having started the season in the Ford Focus RS WRC.  

BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team pairing Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, currently third, had success earlier this month when they won the Serbian Rally. The two-day tarmac rally in Serbia uses similar stages to those scheduled in Bulgaria and Hirvonen described the event as “the perfect way to warm-up for the forthcoming asphalt events in the WRC”.

Former Formula One champion Kimi Raikkonen and co-driver Kaj Lindstrom are looking for their best placing of the season in Bulgaria. The 30-year-old narrowly missed his first rally win when competing against Citroen team-mate Sebastién Ogier at the recent Rally della Lanterna in Italy.

Rally Bulgaria is also a round of the Junior World Rally Championship (JWRC) which currently has Dutch driver Kevin Abbring and Germany’s Aaron Burkart sharing the top of the leader-board after two of the six JWRC events.

Concerned about his lack of asphalt experience prior to Bulgaria, Abbring has just placed top of the two-wheel-drive class in his Renault Clio R3 in the recent Ypres Rally in Belgium. Alongside Abbring and Burkart in a Suzuki Swift, Belgian Thierry Neuville, in a Citroen C2 S1600, is expected to be a top runner in the ten-strong JWRC class in Bulgaria.

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