F1

Erik Comas debuts in Rally Australia

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EX-FORMULA One driver Erik Comas takes on a completely different motorsport challenge this weekend - making his debut in the F.I.A. World Rally Championship. The French driver, a titleholder in motor racing classes as diverse as Formula 3000, ...

EX-FORMULA One driver Erik Comas takes on a completely different motorsport challenge this weekend - making his debut in the F.I.A. World Rally Championship.

The French driver, a titleholder in motor racing classes as diverse as Formula 3000, touring cars, Formula 3 and the Japanese GT championship, is living out a longtime dream - to test himself at the highest levels of rallying.

Although his highly-successful motorsport career has been, until this year, devoted to circuit racing, the 35-year-old Comas reveals that rallying has been on his mind since he was a boy - growing up in southern France, close to a stage of the Monte Carlo Rally.

"So I was introduced to rallying at an early age - and I've been watching special stages for many years.

"And I've been thinking of trying rallying for many years. But until this year there's been no chance."

A gap left in his 2000 schedule as a Nissan works GT driver when the Japanese carmaker decided not to compete in the Le Mans 24-Hours, gave Comas the opportunity he needed: He made a lowkey debut in a United States rally in April (winning the production car class) and has since done another three events - another round of the US series, a tarmac rally in France and a Canadian rally last weekend.

And now - accompanied by navigator Jean Paul Terrasse - Comas will make his world championship debut in the Telstra Rally Australia next Thursday (November 9), driving his Loctite Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 6.

Comas, who earned a drive in F1 with Ligier Lamborghini in 1991 after taking the prestigious F3000 title, says this is on a par: "I'm excited the same as I was when I started in Formula One.

"It's a big challenge: It is difficult to find a good pace which is also a safe pace. On the racetrack it's very easy to find the limit and stay there, whereas in rallying it's very easy to find one corner that puts you over the limit!

Although rallying is so far "only a hobby," Comas adds: "But like everybody with a hobby - I want to turn it into my profession too.

"Essentially I believe that to combine a programme of road racing and rallying will make me a better driver. Rallying to me is more emotional and intuitive, whereas track racing is more rational."

The much-experienced Comas has no illusions about the tough challenge ahead of him in the Telstra Rally Australia: "Of course, I'll never dispute the rally lead," he says with a laugh.

"I still have a lot to learn and the world's best drivers are competing. Even in the Group N (production car) class there are so many good drivers. But I do hope to make it through the rally and to meet the chequered flag."

The man who spent four years in Formula One in the early 1990s - taking seven points-scoring finishes for Ligier and Larrousse - is seriously working on plans to combine rallying and circuit racing for 2001.

One option is to continue driving in the Japan GT Championship, in which he's won the title twice in the last three years - and to contest the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship to further develop the new side of his competition career.

Comas, who has been circuit racing for 17 years - starting out in karts, advancing through Formula Renault, touring cars, F3 and F3000 to F1 and, for five years, racing GTs - is relishing yet another new driving challenge.

He explains that he has eased himself into rallying by choosing two US events that were "blind" rallies, in which no reconnaissance is allowed - unlike the pace-noted approach to international rallies like Rally Australia: "So that was easier for me. Going blind on roads puts much more emphasis on car control and that's something I know.

"But now I've had to add something different - driving with pace notes. For the last 15 years I've been racing considering visual information only and now I have to drive on two channels - visual and audio. So the pace notes are my handicap - it's about trusting more than just my eyes! "

Comas, whose recent achievements include sixth place at Le Mans in 1998 and victory in the Fuji Le Mans 1000km race last year, followed up his Group N victory on his Oregon Trail rally debut by leading the class again in his second gravel event..only to crash out.

In his first tarmac rally, the Rallye du Mont Blanc in France, he won the GT class in a Hommell, a limited production French car. He rolled his Mitsubishi out of Canada's Rally de Charlevoix while holding fifth place.

He is joined in Rally Australia by Belgian brothers Bob and Tom Colsoul in a second Loctite Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6.

www.erikcomas.com

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