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The Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team will look to draw on experience as the 2009 FIA World Rally Championship season gets underway at Rally Ireland next weekend.  It will be the first time the championship has started outside of Monaco since 1996, but the Cumbrian team’s previous outings at the event should see the ambitious outfit firmly in contention for a strong result.
Stobart achieved its first-ever tarmac podium in Ireland, as Jari-Matti Latvala secured third place when the event made its debut on the WRC calendar in 2007.  The M-Sport-run squad will be hoping its current line-up of crews can push for podium positions in a similar fashion, having also already tasted success there in the past.
Stobart’s Matthew Wilson won the inaugural Rally Ireland in 2005 and the Englishman’s experience could be the key to success.  This edition of the event will be Wilson’s 50th WRC start - an incredible achievement for a driver who will turn just 22, when the ceremonial start kicks the event off, on Thursday evening.  He and co-driver Scott Martin are focused on replicating the kind of searing pace they showed in glimpses last season on a more regular basis in 2009.
Henning Solberg will be hoping his preparations for this year’s event will go more smoothly than on his last visit to the Emerald Isle.  He ended up tackling the 2007 event with a replacement co-driver, after regular navigator Cato Menkerud was forced to pull out at the last minute when wife Charlotte gave birth to their second child.  Solberg showed great improvement on tarmac last year, despite his relative inexperience on the surface, and the Norwegian will be hopeful of putting in a strong showing as one of the team’s nominated scorers.
Urmo Aava will be making his Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team debut in Ireland.  The Estonian and co-pilot Kuldar Sikk are nominated scorers for Stobart and will be looking to settle in quickly by finishing the rally and securing crucial points for the squad.  Aava’s seat in the iconic Stobart team is sure to enhance his already widespread popularity - as demonstrated when he was voted Driver of the Year by an overwhelming majority of visitors to WRC.com last month.
Rally Ireland has the honour of taking the place of traditional first round Monte Carlo due to the new rotation system introduced by the FIA.  Stages take place in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and it is the island’s biggest sporting event with more than 250,000 spectators expected to take in the action.  The ceremonial start will take place at Enniskillen Castle in Northern Ireland and will be followed over the course of the weekend by 19 stages through seven counties in the north-west; Cavan, Leitrim, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Sligo, Donegal and Roscommon.
Drivers will be challenged to their maximum by the fast tarmac featured on the stages, with rain, snow and ice all likely to have an impact on conditions and make the 366-kilometre event even more difficult and unpredictable.  Teams must look for an optimum set-up to cope with the fast and bumpy conditions, which are unlike any other in the series calendar.  They will also have the option of using a special snow tyre at the event in addition to the usual Pirelli P-Zero asphalt control tyre.
The Stobart team returns to the championship in 2009 looking to capitalise on its success in 2008 - when it was named Rally Business of the Year at the prestigious Motorsport Industry Awards.  The Cumbrian outfit received the accolade in recognition of successfully maximising its investment in the FIA World Rally Championship - despite having a budget which is a fraction of the manufacturer-backed teams.
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Henning Solberg said:
“I don’t have a lot of experience on asphalt but when I competed on this rally in 2007 I was running in the top six on the first day, which was very good.  It’s not a true tarmac rally because there is so much gravel and mud dragged across the road and I cope with these conditions better.  The most difficult things about the stages are the high-speed sections and the unpredictable bumps, and it’s hard to get a good feeling with the car.  We found a good setting on some tarmac events last year and with a test planned for Monday I’m sure we’ll start the rally with more confidence than before.  I’d really like to start the year off well, and a finish inside the top six would be a good boost ahead of my home event in Norway two weeks later.”
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Urmo Aava said:
“When I did the recce in 2007 I found the most difficult part of the stage to understand was the grip.  The tarmac is changing all the time and it is especially bad on the sections where there is grass in the middle of the road.  For sure this will be a very difficult rally, maybe even more so than Monte Carlo, and in some places it’s like Finland but only on tarmac – with very high speed sections over crests.  The plan is to find a good rhythm but it’s most important to get the car to the finish.  This is not a rally we want to attack in.  This year is an extremely good chance for me in the Stobart team.  We have seen some difficult times lately with teams pulling out, so I know how lucky I am to be with a strong team and will definitely make the most of this opportunity.”
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Matthew Wilson said:
“This is obviously a special event for me having won it in the past and now it’s my 50th WRC start so hopefully it will be kind to me.  The time of year will certainly make the conditions very difficult and in 2007 there was a lot of mud dragged across the road as drivers cut corners over the grass.  As the first event of the year, it would be good to start off with a decent result and our pre-event test on Monday will certainly help with that.  It will be a good boost to my confidence to get some miles in the test rather than going straight into the shakedown on Thursday morning.”
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Team Principal Malcolm Wilson said:
“It’s great to have the Stobart team continue in the World Rally Championship again this year, and personally I’m really pleased to have seen them receiving an award in recognition of their support and performance in the WRC.  With six fresh events on the 2009 championship calendar I think this will work in our favour as it’s a clean slate for everyone.  I’m also delighted Urmo Aava has joined the Stobart team and, even though Ireland is a difficult event, I really think there is potential for all three crews to finish inside the points.”
Event Information
Date:  30 January – 1 February 2009
Round:  1 of 12, FIA World Rally Championship
Based:  Sligo, Ireland
Stage surface:  Tarmac
Total stage distance:  366.75 kilometres
Number of stages:  19
Longest stage:  SS16 Arigna – 27.90 kilometres
Central Service Park:  Sligo Institute of Technology
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