Countdown to ADAC Rallye Deutschland And so, we return to the city of the Black Gate. It sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings, doesn't it? Frodo Baggins' quest for the 'One Ring' is, however, a mere stroll in the park compared with...
Countdown to ADAC Rallye Deutschland
And so, we return to the city of the Black Gate. It sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings, doesn't it?
Frodo Baggins' quest for the 'One Ring' is, however, a mere stroll in the park compared with this year's Rallye Deutschland. The Dark Lord Sauron would likely be a more sympathetic foe than Panzerplatte.
Rallye Deutschland is a rally of three parts, with competition through the Mosel vineyards, including some of the steepest hairpin bends around, the Saarland country lanes - as good as the lanes anywhere in the world, and finally in the Baumholder military testing ground. And this is where the going gets tough. This is where the drivers will find Panzerplatte.
And this year, Panzerplatte's been working out, it's even tougher than ever. It's 18 kilometres longer than last time it was used. At a mighty 48 kilometres, it's the season's biggest stage. In short, it's a monster. And that's in the dry. If it turns wet, Panzerplatte is the stuff of nightmares. And the drivers have to do it twice next Saturday. Nice.
The surface in Arena Panzerplatte is always changing - and it changes again with every car that passes over it. It's a hard road to read - and with 48,000 metres to get through, the co-drivers are going to have a lot of pace notes to read. The arena section of this stage is where the fans all congregate to see their heroes close up - and the atmosphere in the middle is just wonderful.
There's no time for the drivers to take any of that in, though, they need to be 100 per cent focused. If they're not, there's a hinkelstein (the enormous slabs of stone used to keep tanks on the right track) waiting at the side of the road.
There's plenty to keep the fans on their feet, too; this year's Rallye Deutschland is the first of two rallies (Rallye de France being the second) that is a round of all three support series. That means, as well as the World Rally Car-driving superheroes at the front of the field, fans will see the cream of Juniors, Production and Super 2000 World Rally Championships.
And, they'll also be treated to the return of Francois Duval. Eighteen months after his last World Rally Championship outing, the Belgian who has come closest to beating a supreme Sebastien Loeb in these parts will be back for another crack at the master. Which leads us nicely on to...
Who's going to win?
Well, there's 80 teams from 28 nations and more than 200,000 people coming to watch. But Rallye Deutschland really remains about one man: Sebastien Loeb. Actually, two men: Loeb and his co-driver Daniel Elena. Okay, two men and one car: Loeb, Elena and their C4 WRC. Okay, okay, two men, one car and their team: the Citroen Total World Rally Team. You get the point, though.
The last time Loeb didn't win Germany's round of the World Rally Championship was 2001 - because there wasn't one. Get that, 2001! Remember 2001? It was the year the iPod was born; the Manic Street Street Preachers became the first western band to play in Cuba and it was also the year Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown wouldn't get asked back to the Bel Air Hotel after it took staff five days to clean the room in the Hollywood hotel after they left. But, as far as we're concerned, the biggest news was that Sebastien Loeb didn't win in Germany.
In fact, he didn't win last year, either - but that was also because the event didn't happen. Will he win this year? Yes. Who can stop him? Er, nobody. Maybe he can stop himself by making a mistake or maybe the Citroen will miss a beat. Neither are particularly likely. This isn't quite Loeb's backyard (it's the wrong country for a start), but it is his neighbour's backyard. He knows the roads intimately and, more importantly, he knows how to second-guess the grip levels. If there's a fine drizzle in the vineyards, he's got it covered; if it's lashing it down in Baumholder, he's on it and if the sun's shining in the lanes, he knows where to find the line.
With a 100 per cent record and seven wins from seven starts, this rally is all about Loeb and his bid to extend that dominance.
All competitors in four-wheel drive cars competing in Germany will use Pirelli's PZero asphalt tyre which is available in hard and soft compounds. The hard compound is intended for dry conditions with the soft version offering better grip in the event of rain. However, because the road surface in the vineyard stages is less abrasive than on some other asphalt events, crews could opt for the soft compound even when there has been no rainfall. Selecting when to use hard and when to use soft is the key. Priority 1 and 2 drivers can use a total of 54 tyres, which is 14 more than in Bulgaria. They have an allocation of 40 hard and 32 soft compound tyres.
Gassner Jr aims for P-WRC glory on home soil
The Production Car World Rally Championship resumes on Rallye Deutschland this week as the leading runners in the class for two-litre turbocharged showroom cars prepare for their first outing on asphalt this season.
One driver in particularly who is keen to impress is Hermann Gassner Jr, the reigning German rally champion who has been nominated by the event organisers, along with Florian Niegel, as a wildcard entrant.
The nomination means Gassner and Niegel can score P-WRC points in their respective Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IXs and take advantage of other benefits including a more advanced road position and a larger allocation of Pirelli PZero tyres.
Gassner Jr, 21, hails from Surheim in Germany and works as a mechanic to help fund his rallying career, which is being supported this year by energy drink giant Red Bull. He has vowed to do all he can to make the most of the opportunity on his home rally. "Of course there is more pressure racing at home but I like this rally a lot and cannot wait to get started and achieve the best result possible," said Gassner Jr.
"It won't be easy because it is a difficult rally and I do not know the pace of some of the other guys in the P-WRC. But I did a good test in Austria recently and feel very confident I can be on the podium at the finish."
Gassner Jr topped the Group N standings when Rallye Deutschland last appeared in the world championship in 2008. He says he still remembers the achievement with great fondness. "It's definitely one of the best memories I have from my career," said Gassner Jr. "But I also remember the only way you can achieve a good result like that is to drive a good, clean race. This is a very important rally for me. I was not happy with my results in Sweden and Portugal so I am looking to get a good result on my home rally."
Gassner Jr's main opposition in Germany is expected to come from title leader Armindo Araujo and Patrik Flodin, who is currently eight points behind the Portuguese in the drivers' standings. Flodin, from Sweden, undertook a Tarmac test in Russia recently to build his limited experience of driving on asphalt, a surface on which Araujo traditionally excels.
Double P-WRC champion Toshi Arai will also be taking part in Germany and, like Flodin, has limited sealed-surface experience. The Subaru Impreza ace tackled the European championship-counting Ypres Rally in Belgium in late June in order to adapt his driving style to Tarmac competition.
The five Pirelli Star Drivers will be in action on the Trier-based event in their Lancer Evolution Xs, although with the exception of Nick Georgiou and Alex Raschi, they have limited knowledge of competing on asphalt.
Ex-Champ Car racer Michel Jourdain Jr could be a dark horse for honours in Germany. Although the Mexican is embarking on only his first full season as a rally driver, his career as a racing driver means he has a wealth of Tarmac competition experience to call upon.
Super 2000 stars prepare for asphalt first
The first asphalt event of the season awaits the Super 2000 World Rally Championship crews when the new-for-2010 series resumes on Rallye Deutschland this week.
Nine S-WRC competitors are due to take part on the Trier-based event, which gets underway with the first of 19 special stages on Friday morning (20 August).
They include title leader Xevi Pons, from Spain, and Swede P-G Andersson who pilot a Ford Fiesta S2000 and Skoda Fabia S2000 respectively. Pons didn't nominate Rally Finland as one of his scoring rounds. As a result, his lead in the drivers' standings was trimmed to 18 points over Andersson following the Jyvaskyla-based event after Andersson finished second to wildcard driver Juho Hanninen.
"I know the stages well in Germany and did over 200 kilometres of testing [three] weeks ago so I'm feeling very confident with the set-up of the car and confident to hold onto my lead," said Pons.
Unlike many of his rivals, Andersson has recent sealed-surface competition experience after entering the all-asphalt Rally Bulgaria in early July. Admittedly it was in a Focus World Rally Car rather than his regular Skoda but it was asphalt experience nevertheless.
Patrik Sandell finished third in Finland and will be hoping to capitalise on that result and a successful pre-event test in Austria recently where the Swede was accompanied for several runs by his team chief Raimund Baumschlager.
Baumschlager, a winner of 10 Austrian Rally Championship titles, is regarded as a Tarmac specialist and was considered the perfect companion for Sandell, who is looking to up his pace on asphalt as he chases his first victory in the S-WRC class.
"Raimund has done thousands of kilometres in the Skoda on Tarmac so he has a lot of knowledge," said Sandell. "He was able to give me advice about the set-up and also some tips on my driving such as when to brake later when he was with me in the car."
Fiesta driver Martin Prokop is also expected to be a contender in Germany and starts the rally on the back of a three-day test in his native Czech Republic. He knows the Rallye Deutschland stages well from his stint in the Junior World Rally Championship and will look to transfer that knowledge when he makes his fifth start of the season in the S-WRC.
Bernardo Sousa will be competing in Germany on the back of an appearance on his home round of the European Rally Championship, Rali Vinho Madeira, in early August. Although a fire in his Fiesta's engine bay ruled out a strong result, he will nevertheless arrive in Trier match fit.
Michal Kosciuszko is set to tackle his second S-WRC event with the Skoda Italia operation following a recent switch to Pierfrancesco Zanchi's experienced team. The rapid Polish driver has shown plenty of potential in the S-WRC this season by taking two podium finishes.
Eyvind Brynildsen, from Norway, will also be at the wheel of a Skoda for the German event and will be aiming to capitalise on the experienced gained from competing on Rally Bulgaria.
Burkart chases the Junior lead at home
German driver Aaron Burkart will be looking to return to the top of the Junior World Rally Championship standings ahead of his home crowd on this week's Rallye Deutschland.
The Suzuki driver skipped the previous round of the J-WRC in Bulgaria, but will now contest all remaining rounds of the Junior series.
Burkart's form has been strong this season: he won the opening round in Turkey and then dropped a four-minute lead in Portugal when he hit a rock on the second day's competition on the Algarve. He still managed to finish the Rally of Portugal third - a result which kept him in touch with series leader Kevin Abbring. From now on, though, Burkart is looking for the title.
"It wasn't so good that we lost a big lead like we did in Portugal," said Burkart, "but we're now going to my stronger surface, which is asphalt, for the rest of the season, so I'm looking forward to this. It's always nice to compete at home and Deutschland will be an interesting - but tough - rally."
Championship leader Abbring showed the potential of him and his Renault Clio when he won his class on the Ypres Rally earlier in the summer, but it's this week that really matters for the Dutchman. He could only manage seventh on the Rally Bulgaria following alternator failure on his Renault and he knows he's going to be up against it to keep his championship lead.
"Our R3 car is not quite so strong as the Super 1600s on asphalt," said Abbring. "We lose a little in areas like the braking: our car is heavier, so we have to brake earlier. But, let's see what happens - certainly it's going to be an interesting rally."
One of the favourites for J-WRC success has to be Belgian ace Thierry Neuville. The Citroen C2 driver set the pace on the opening two rounds, only to hit trouble in Turkey and Portugal, but last time out in Bulgaria he collected the maiden Junior win he'd been threatening all season. Neuville will be looking to continue that fine asphalt pace through to the ever-changing stages of the Trier-based Rallye Deutschland.
Burkart's Suzuki team-mate Karl Kruda could also threaten in Germany. The Estonian driver has finished all three Junior rounds so far this season and is just four points behind his senior team-mate Burkart ahead of the fourth of six J-WRC rounds.