Extreme challenges and a tightly-poised contest await drivers in the 2011 FIA World Rally Championship when Rally Argentina starts today (Australian time).

Rally Argentina, which returns to the WRC trail after a one-year absence, is ranked as one of the most taxing yet important events on the 13-round schedule.

It is round six in the championship, which also will visit the New South Wales Coffs Coast for round 10, Rally Australia, on 8-11 September.

With rock-strewn roads, sandy tracks, twisty passes through lunar-like landscapes, water splashes, fog patches and high-speed jumps, Argentina pushes drivers and cars to the limit.

Increasing the challenge, organisers have added sections of tarmac to the competitive route, which drivers will tackle on their gravel tyres.

After two wins, Sebastien Loeb leads the 2011 drivers’ championship with 100 points, but is far from secure against Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen (93) and the other official Citroen driver Sebastien Ogier (81).

Loeb has won five times in Argentina, including in 2009, but as world championship leader will carry the burden of running first on the road and pushing aside the loose surface gravel in his factory Citroen DS3 WRC.

For most drivers, clearing the stages would invoke fears of significant time loss. But as he proved on the last round in Italy, where he ran at the front on all three days, Loeb is well equipped to master the difficult conditions and is favorite to win.

Citroen teammate Sebastien Ogier is a relative Argentina novice, having tackled the event just once before, in 2009, and has all but ruled out a strong result.

Mikko Hirvonen underlined his speed by winning the rally-closing Power Stage in Sardinia, although a puncture on day one had put him out of outright contention.

However, having found what he claims to be a near-perfect gravel set-up on his Ford Fiesta RS WRC and boosted by his rapid times in Italy, the 30-year-old Finn has high hopes for victory.

Teammate Jari-Matti Latvala also flew in Sardinia and with four consecutive podium finishes at the start of the season will be hoping to achieve that level of performance in Argentina.

Former World Champion Petter Solberg is making the trip to South America with his Citroen DS3 WRC, still chasing the dream of his first victory as a privateer.

The Norwegian begins the event on a high after finally landing his first podium finish of 2011 when he came home third in Sardinia. He has extensive experience of competing in Argentina.

Whatever happens, the driver known as Hollywood for his blond looks, amiable personality and never-say-die competitiveness, is sure to be welcomed by the tens of thousands of Argentinian fans who are considered some of the most enthusiastic on the tour.

The rally will start with a superspecial stage nears its headquarters in the lake resort of Villa Carlos Paz, north of the capital Buenos Aires.

Friday’s action comprises three repeated stages in the Traslasierra valley west of Carlos Paz, featuring narrow and twisty roads lined by large rocks. The stages run at a higher altitude, which can affect engine performance.

Tomorrow’s itinerary takes competitors south of Carlos Paz where demanding high-speed roads await.

Day three, north of Carlos Paz, begins with a monster 48.21-kilometre stage from Ascochinga to Agua de Oro.

Made up of twisty and high-speed sections, the run is the longest of the WRC season so far. The televised Cabalango-Villa Garcia Power Stage brings competition to a close on Sunday afternoon.

The tarmac sections feature on days one and two with the El Condor-Cuesta Blanca stage on Friday ending with a 20 km downhill section. The Las Jarillas-Falda del Carmen stage starts on gravel but 14 kms are downhill on tarmac.

Drivers will have to maintain their speed despite the absence of grip, while also doing their best to prevent their gravel tyres from wearing out completely.

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