WRC countdown: Rallye de France The rally If Sebastien Loeb was going to be born by a river, you'd expect it to be a great river. And the Rhine is a truly great river. Starting from a glacier in Switzerland, it races through Italy, ...
WRC countdown: Rallye de France
If Sebastien Loeb was going to be born by a river, you'd expect it to be a great river. And the Rhine is a truly great river.
Starting from a glacier in Switzerland, it races through Italy, Austria, Lichtenstein, Germany, France and Holland, before popping out in the North Sea 1,232 kilometres after it started its icy journey in the mountains.
Next week, the World Rally Championship will visit the banks of the Rhine for the first time, as the Rally de France switches a Corsican base for the mainland city of Strasbourg.
And, with a fairytale storyline in the offing, the event's switch could coincide with Sebastien Loeb's finest hour. Victory for the Frenchman at home next week would mean 60 world rally wins and seven world rally titles. And he'd do it all within cheering distance of the streets he was brought up on. And on the banks of the Rhine.
France was not a scheduled stop for the World Rally Championship last season - and the Strasbourg-based event will be quite different to the last time, the 2008 Corsican edition. Gone are the mountains, the big drops and the seemingly never-ending series of bends which led to the event being labelled the Rally of 1,000 Corners.
And in comes with a fascinating route, running north and south of Strasbourg. Unlike Corsica, each of the three days on next week's event will have a distinct flavour; in this respect, the Rally de France is similar to Rallye Deutschland, which runs north-west in Trier.
Day one in France will include stages in the Vosges region, meaning narrow and bumpy - but exceptionally fast stages. Day two remains south of the host city, but switches the action to the vineyard roads. On Sunday, the crews will head north for one stage on the military camp and one stage in Haguenau, the town Loeb was born to 36 year ago.
Inevitably, this new event can't build the history of its predecessor overnight, but what it can and will bring is previously unchartered levels of popularity to a rally which is pretty much in the centre of Europe. Strasbourg is a short drive from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg and Belgium. But, come Sunday, all eyes will be on a town called Haguenau.
Who's going to win? 1 2
Do we dare say anything other than Sebastien Loeb? In short, no. Statistically, Ford's Mikko Hirvonen doesn't have a bad record on new rallies, but Loeb's towering ability allied to the Citroen C4 WRC's acknowledged prowess on sealed surfaces will stand the Frenchman in exceptional shape for what would be an emotional trip home a week on Sunday.
Loeb played a tactical game last time out on Rally Japan. Unwilling to risk everything to win in the orient, he did what he had to give himself a shot at what he himself calls, the dream result.
On paper, Citroen team-mate Dani Sordo will be right up there with him - and probably dipping in and out of the lead - but if the factory C4s are one-two at the end of the event, Loeb will be out front.
Citroen's Junior Team could pose a threat, with both drivers arriving in Strasbourg off the back of rally wins: Sebastien Ogier in Japan and Kimi Raikkonen on Rallye Vosges last week.
Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala will lead Ford's charge, but the Focus pair are an outside bet to upset what's looking increasingly like a French victory parade at home. Citroen is currently 95 points clear in the makers' race, if it finishes the event with 86 of those points still intact the Versailles-based team will pick up a sixth title in eight years.
WRC tyre supplier Pirelli will supply the hard and soft compound variant of its PZero tyre to all crews in four-wheel drive machinery on Rallye de France. The hard compound is designed for hot and dry conditions with the soft version better suited for cooler temperatures and a damp stage surface.
Priority 1 and 2 drivers can select from a quantity of 24 hard compound and 22 soft compound PZero tyres. However, they cannot exceed 36 tyres for the entire event.
All other four-wheel drive crews can select from 20 hard compound tyres and 16 soft compound tyres but are restricted to a total of 25 for the duration of the rally. Crews in the Junior World Rally Championship will use Pirelli's RX tyre, available in 16- and 17-inch diameter.