Just under a month after the thrilling four-way battle for victory on Rally Islas Canarias El Corte Ingles electrified fans around the world, the chase for Intercontinental Rally Challenge glory resumes on the Mediterranean island of Corsica from 12-14 May with a live television spectacular.

Eurosport, Europe’s leading sports entertainment group and host broadcaster of the IRC, will broadcast six stages of Tour de Corse-E.Leclerc live to more than 123 million homes across 59 countries in Europe. There will also be coverage on Eurosport Asia-Pacific, Eurosportnews and Eurosport Player, the online simulcast service providing live and on demand access to Eurosport’s channels.

France 3 Corsica-Via Stella will also provide live coverage of the six stages, while several other television channels around the world will show highlights or delayed footage of the thrilling stage action.

Affectionately known as the Rally of 10,000 Corners due to the proliferation of twists and turns on challenging mountain roads, the legendary event will reflect its original spirit with stages spread over a larger area of the picturesque French island than in recent years, when it joins the IRC for the first time in 2011. The claim of the rally his year expresses this spirit, “the Return of the Myth”.

Starting in the town of Calvi on Corsica’s north west coast at 13:00hrs local time on Thursday 12 May, the event will include 14 all-asphalt special stages over a competitive distance of 320 kilometres.

Thursday’s itinerary features two runs over the 27.53-kilometre Le Fangu-Notre Dame de la Serra stage, which straddles the Calvi Coast and is the longest of the event. From the overnight halt in Calvi, crews head to stages around Corte on Friday 13 May with three repeated tests split by service halts at the town’s aerodrome. The final day’s action on Saturday 14 May again consists of three repeated stages and runs around Ajaccio in the south west of the island where the first car is due to finish at approximately 21:35hrs.

The first Tour de Corse took place in 1956 and it wasn’t long before the event became one of the world’s most iconic, albeit challenging rallies. It developed a fearsome reputation as drivers negotiated narrow mountain roads in high-powered cars, lined with unforgiving rock faces on one side of the road or steep drops on the other.

It was also an extreme test of endurance with the route covering significant parts of the island in a 25-hour stretch. In more recent times organisers have settled for a more compact and sedate route based around Ajaccio. However, the task facing drivers has not diminished and this year’s event, the 54th running, is likely to be one of the highlights of the IRC calendar.

Although the bulk of the competitors will have some knowledge of the Corsican roads, most stage layouts are unchartered territory for IRC regulars with several classic tests from yesteryear returning to the itinerary including the Barchetta and Bocognano runs. However, most of the island’s undulating roads have undergone resurfacing over the years, which has eradicated much of the broken and bumpy asphalt that was once synonymous with the rally.

While hot and sunny weather is expected for the duration of the event, the island’s climate can be changeable, particularly in mountainous areas. This can make tyre choice a lottery in the event of rainfall during a stage.

All drivers will be in contention for the prestigious Colin McRae IRC Flat Out Trophy, which is awarded on all rounds of the IRC to the driver whose performance best embodies the spirit of the rally legend, a two-time Tour de Corse winner.

THE COMPETITORS
     
After finishing a close second to fellow Skoda Motorsport driver Juho Hanninen on the last IRC round, Jan Kopecky will be looking to make the most of his team-mate’s absence in Corsica having gone almost 13 months without a win in the IRC.

Hanninen is not planning to defend his IRC title in 2011 despite topping drivers’ classification after two events, handing Kopecky the task of upholding Skoda honour on the Mediterranean event.

Like Kopecky, Freddy Loix was also a contender for victory on Rally Islas Canarias. The Belgian BFO Skoda driver knows that a first win of 2011 would propel him to the top of the drivers’ classification following his run to second overall on Rallye Monte-Carlo in January.

Thierry Neuville arrives in Corsica on a high following his impressive podium finish on round two where he narrowly missed out on winning in his Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207. The 22-year-old was one of the revelations in the Canary Islands and starts the Tour de Corse on the back of a successful test with Peugeot Sport in France last month.

Guy Wilks, whose Peugeot UK 207 is run by the same Kronos Racing organisation responsible for Neuville’s car, has the pace to win in the IRC but was restricted to fifth overall on Rally Islas Canarias where he complained of a lack of stability in high-speed corners. Like Neuville, Wilks also tested in France in preparation for the island rally.

Bryan Bouffier, the current French rally champion, began his IRC bid with Peugeot France with victory on Rallye Monte-Carlo. On the last round in Canary Islands, however, he was never quite satisfied with the handling of his car, nor of his own performance behind the wheel. While he has never competed in Corsica before, Bouffier is more than capable of fighting for first place.

Norway’s Andreas Mikkelsen has more recent knowledge of Corsica’s demanding roads than the many of his rivals after contesting a regional rally on the island back in March. The Skoda UK Motorsport driver claimed a comfortable victory on the event and also scored a confidence-boosting sixth on round two of the IRC following his early retirement from Rallye Monte-Carlo.

Bruno Magalhaes will be a contender for a strong haul of points in his Peugeot Sport Portugal 207. However, it won’t be an easy task for the talented 30-year-old from Lisbon who has never rallied in Corsica before and won’t get the opportunity for a pre-event test.

One driver with plenty of Corsica experience is Pierre Campana, who hails from Corte. Campana, the joint leader of the IRC 2WD Cup following his victory in Monte-Carlo, steps up to Super 2000 technology for his home rally when he will drive a 207 for the Italian Munaretto squad.

Patrik Sandell begins his seven-event IRC programme in a Skoda Sweden Fabia. The 29-year-old has previous experience of competing on the island from his stint in the World Rally Championship where he won the Junior title in 2006. Sandell, who will be co-driven by Staffan Parmander, also has good knowledge of driving Skodas, something he has done since 2010.

Toni Gardemeister is doubling up as a team boss in the IRC this season at the wheel of a Fabia S2000, which he took to 10th overall on Rally Islas Canarias. The Finn was a regular on the event when it formed part of the world championship.

Other Super 2000 drivers in action include Massimiliano Settembrini (Peugeot 207), Julien Maurin (M-Sport Ford Fiesta) and Pascal Lescloupe, who will drive an Abarth Grande Punto.

Subaru will debut its R4-specification Impreza in the IRC on Tour de Corse. Driven by veteran Japanese Toshi Arai, the car has been designed to narrow the performance gap between pacesetting Super 2000 cars and Group N production models.

IRC Production Cup
Florian Gonon, who won the inaugural IRC Production Cup event on Rallye Monte-Carlo in January, returns to the series in his Subaru Impreza. The Swiss will face opposition from several Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer drivers including Jean-Marc Sanchez and Irishman Eamonn Boland.

IRC 2WD Cup
The IRC 2WD Cup entry is bulging with quality and quantity with 31 runners competing in the two-wheel drive class in Corsica. Harry Hunt, the defending IRC 2WD Cup champion, heads the entry and will face strong opposition from Stefano Albertini, Eric Mauffrey, plus Honda Civic Type R driver Martin Kangur.

MISS FRANCE TO LEAD THE FIELD IN CORSICA
Miss France, Laury Thilleman, will lead the field over the opening stages of Tour de Corse-E.Leclerc. The 19-year-old will be a passenger in one of the Peugeot RCZ course cars. She said: “I like extreme sports but for motorsport it will be the first time in Corsica. I’m really happy to be opening the rally.”
    
Bryan Bouffier (France), Peugeot 207 S2000: “Apart from two days of tests a few years ago I have no knowledge of the stages. For sure it will be very nice rally and a close battle with the front guys. I hope to be among them and because I will be in France I will be a little bit more motivated.”

Pierre Campana (France), Peugeot 207 S2000: “I am extremely excited and proud to be participating in this year’s Tour de Corse. Coming from Corsica, it is an amazing experience to drive in front of a home crowd and I remember it well from taking part in the event back in 2008.”

Patrik Sandell (Sweden), Skoda Fabia S2000: “My two best results last year were on Tarmac so I will push for a podium in Corsica as it will be important to score as many points as possible on my first event. I know there will be lots of others who are also fast on Tarmac but I am confident.”

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