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Five weeks and a hemisphere away from Repco Rally New Zealand, the World Rally Championship (WRC) resumes this weekend (2-5 October) for Rally de España.
Formerly Rally de Catalunya, the Spanish event is the first of back-to-back weekends for WRC competitors and its asphalt surface is also a world away from the fast flowing gravel roads of New Zealand they used in late August.
Most of the three-day rally is run from the holiday resort of Salou on the Costa Daurada coast in the Catalonian region. The event has been based about an hour south of capital city Barcelona only since 2005, thus presenting drivers with a relatively new collection of stages.
Twelfth of 15 WRC events this year, Rally de España is regarded as the first pure tarmac test of the season and could well provide a deciding event for the overall WRC titles.
Smooth but abrasive roads are likened by teams to that of a race circuit. Each of the three days comprises two passes over a different loop of three stages – 18 stages and 353km in total. Particularly on the second run, crews find gravel and dirt across the tarmac, spread as corners are cut, so safety crews go through before the second pass to check conditions and amend crews’ pace notes where necessary.
Having won the rally for the past three years, Citroen’s Sébastien Loeb says his favoured status and eight point lead in the driver standings is motivation to concentrate on attacking rather than defending the position.
“A top result in Spain would do our chances a world of good in both championships. But our rivals are aware of that, too, so they will have no intention of making life easy for us. That said, this is a rally I really like and I will try to make the most of this opportunity to pull further clear at the top of the drivers’ standings.
“It’s a high-speed event and I enjoy the circuit-type driving style the stages call for,” adds the 34-year old Loeb. “There’s no other rally like it in the championship and it’s been particularly successful for us in recent years. Also, as we saw in 2007 at the end of last year’s first leg, the changeable weather is a factor we can’t afford to ignore, as is the fact that our tyres will not be equipped with a run-flat system.”
Restricted to using the Pirelli PZero asphalt tyre, teams do have the option to select hard or soft compound – used in both wet and dry conditions – and teams indicate they believe the tyre should cope well with the conditions after proving its worth in WRC Germany.
With 27 WRC cars in a field of 79, the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team is expecting to seek revenge on Citroën after throwing away victory in Repco Rally New Zealand. They have drafted tarmac specialist Francois Duval into the top BP Ford team to run alongside Mikko Hirvonen who is second in the championship behind Loeb. This move means this season’s BP Ford regular Jari-Matti Latvala goes back to drive for the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford rally team he drove for last season.
Citroën’s Dani Sordo is third overall with 51 points to Loeb’s 86. Another well-known for his abilities on tarmac, Sordo could well align with Loeb to make another historic Citroën one-two.
Alongside the works entries of Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson, the Subaru World Rally Team will run a third factory car for both this rally and the next round in Corsica. Impreza WRC2008 number 15 will be driven by Frenchman Brice Tirabassi, the 2003 J-WRC Champion. Team principal David Richards says a lack of asphalt testing with the Impreza WRC2008 means the team still has a lot to learn on the surface. Atkinson holds fourth in the drivers’ championship.
Other WRC contenders include Federico Villagra and Henning Solberg nominated to collect points for the Munchi’s Ford World Rally Team and Suzuki’s P-G Andersson and Toni Gardemeister. Andersson claimed a win in the Junior World Rally Championship class on these stages last year. 
Rally de España is also the penultimate round of the Junior World Rally Championship (J-WRC) in which Sebastien Ogier (Citroen C2) has a nine point lead over Ireland’s Shaun Gallagher, also in a Citroen C2.
The last tarmac event of the year, Rallye de France or the Corsica Rally, takes place only a week later.
FIA World Rally Championship – Drivers’ top-six after 11 of 15 rounds
1, Sébastien Loeb (France), 86pts
2, Mikko Hirvonen (Finland), 78pts                 
3, Dani Sordo (Spain), 51pts                 
4, Chris Atkinson (Australia), 40pts                 
5, Jari-Matti Latvala (Finland), 34pts                 
6, Petter Solberg (Norway), 32pts                
FIA World Rally Championship – Manufacturers top-six after 11 of 15 rounds
1, Citroen Total, 141pts
2, BP Ford Abu Dhabi, 121pts
3, Subaru, 74pts
4, Stobart VK M-Sport Ford, 51pts
5, Munchi's Ford, 22pts
6, Suzuki, 20pts
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