The middle of the three October asphalt rallies in this year's FIA World Rally Championship starts competitively tomorrow morning. Citroen driver Sebastien Loeb will be looking to find the same form as in Italy two weeks ago, when he led the...
The middle of the three October asphalt rallies in this year's FIA World Rally Championship starts competitively tomorrow morning. Citroen driver Sebastien Loeb will be looking to find the same form as in Italy two weeks ago, when he led the Sanremo Rally from start to finish, despite running the wrong tyres in torrential rain which hit the final loop of stages in the Ligurian mountains. Loeb's third win of the season moved him into second place in the chase for the 2003 drivers' championship; he now lies just two points behind the Peugeot 206 WRC of Briton Richard Burns. Burns struggled to get into the groove on the last round, only managing seventh place. Fourth place for Carlos Sainz was enough for Loeb's fellow Xsara WRC driver to maintain third place, with Subaru's Petter Solberg fourth - albeit nine points adrift of the leader. As always in Corsica, the weather will play a big part in proceedings. The stages run through the mountains behind the rally's base in Ajaccio, climbing as high as 1,200 metres in some parts - which will make tyre choice as difficult as it is critical.
This event is also the final round of this year's FIA Production Car World Rally Championship, where Britain's Martin Rowe needs to finish fifth or higher to clinch this year's title in his Subaru Impreza. Toshi Arai (Subaru Impreza) can still deny the former Renault factory driver his moment of glory, however.
Citroen Total (1st - 125 points)
Technical: Citroen will field four factory specification Xsara WRCs, with Philippe Bugalskli joining the usual trio of drivers. Bugalksi's car - while running at the same level as the other three - will be prepared by Spanish privateer team Piedrafita Sport. Sebastien Loeb's Xsara is the same car which the Frenchman has used to win Rally Deutschland for the last two years.
Sporting: Loeb arrives on a high having taken his third win of the year just two weeks ago. Loeb has tackled this event three times before, but never at the wheel of a manufacturer World Rally Car. His lack of experience will be levelled, however, by the fact that this year's route includes a lot of stages which are new to all of the drivers. Carlos Sainz was another driver to miss a test session last week, following his kidney stones problem in Italy. The Spaniard will be fit for this week's event - a rally which he enjoys. Colin McRae will be hoping to find some extra pace after slipping behind his team-mates on Rallye Sanremo. The Scot has won Corsica twice in the past, but those victories have been balanced by two big accidents in the last three years on the island.
Sebastien Loeb said: "The key for me to win the championship is finishing the next three rallies. In Italy I found the pace to run at the front without taking too many risks. If I can do that again then okay, that's good, but if not then I'm not going to take big risks - particularly if it rains."
Carlos Sainz said: "I'm still feeling a little pain, but it will be fine for the rally. As for the championship, I think Sebastien is still the favourite for the title. Obviously I will be trying to beat him this weekend, but for the team the big positive is the leading position Citroen has in the manufacturers' standings."
Colin McRae said: "I didn't have much fun in Italy at all. Corsica is a good rally, one of my favourites on asphalt. I know I've had some big crashes here, but I don't think its reputation as a really dangerous event is justified anymore. We don't go to any of the stages with the really big drops these days."
Philippe Bugalksi said: "My co-driver is a Corsican and I love this rally. I love the way the stages flow, they're great. I've done the event quite a few times as a round of the French Championship and won it twice. My other favourite event is Catalunya - which is just a week away - so this is a good part of the season for me."
Marlboro Peugeot Total (2nd - 121 points)
Technical: The three official 206 WRCs will start Corsica in the same specification in which they finished Sanremo.
Sporting: Richard Burns has put his troubled Italian outing behind him and is confident he can bounce back to score more points on this rally. The two points he picked up late in the day during Rallye Sanremo ensured he remained at the top of the drivers' table. Gilles Panizzi's drive from fifth to second on the final loop of Rallye Sanremo was one of the talking points of the event. The Frenchman was the only one of the front-running drivers to chose anything but a slick racing tyre for the final two rain lashed stages. He'll be looking for more of the same inspired choices of Michelin through this coming weekend. Marcus Gronholm has admitted that his chances of retaining his world championship disappeared when he crashed out of Sanremo on the penultimate stage. The Finn, who damaged some muscles in his back in the accident, had been the leading Peugeot - even impressing Panizzi with his improved asphalt pace - in third place when he lost control of the 206 and aquaplaned into the side of the mountain. Gronholm and Burns are both still searching for an illusive first FIA World Rally Championship victory on asphalt.
Richard Burns said: "The more open stages in Italy were more like the ones which we will find in Corsica and we seemed to go better on those, so hopefully things will be better on this round. Certainly it's going to be hard work to match the sort of pace which the Citroens and Markko (Martin) found."
Marcus Gronholm said: "My back will be fine for the rally. I missed a test session last week, which has given me some more recovery time. I couldn't believe in Italy how little grip we had in the rain, it was amazing. Before we went off, I felt I had been driving well - at the maximum for the car." Gilles Panizzi said: "I still think that Peugeot can win the manufacturers' award this year, it is going to be difficult - there's no doubt about that - but the 206 still has the pace to do. I'm looking forward to Corsica, I've won here before and it's a rally I enjoy."
555 Subaru World Rally Team (3rd - 76 points)
Technical: Neither Petter Solberg or Tommi Makinen will run with the roll-control system which the team introduced on the last round in Italy.
Sporting: It remains unclear whether Solberg will start the event tomorrow morning, the Norwegian crashed off the road during today's shakedown stage and damaged the left-hand side of his Impreza extensively. The team is considering numerous possibilities - including bringing a fresh car out from the team's base in Britain. Makinen's day was without problems. The Finn will be looking to end a dismal run of three accidents on the last three years on this rally.
Petter Solberg said: " I always respect shakedown. I've never put a foot wrong before, but we are competing at the top level in a high-pressure situation. Unfortunately things like this can happen at any time during the shakedown or the event. Right now I just want to start the rally."
Tommi Makinen said: "I had a good feeling with the car on the last round in Italy. For me, it's a good idea having these asphalt rounds so close together; you need to get into the right driving style for this surface - you need to be very precise, not sliding the car around. Having all the rallies close means you get the best out of yourself."
Ford Motor Company (4th - 71 points)
Technical: As usual Ford is fielding a Focus RS WRC03 apiece for Markko Martin and Francois Duval, while Mikko Hirvonen will use a 2002 specification Focus for the event. Martin's car is the one which he used to win both Finland and Cyprus.
Sporting: Martin was the only driver able to challenge Citroen's Sebastien Loeb for outright pace in Italy. Ford's Estonian star set seven fastest times, but dropped 30 seconds on the opening leg when leaves blocked the car's air intake, forcing the engine into a safe mode. A further 30 seconds were dropped at the start of the second leg, when the car refused to fire due to an electrical fault. Martin has admitted that his chances of the championship are remote, but he's determined to add an asphalt win to his victories in Greece and Finland earlier this season. Duval also showed improved pace in Sanremo, ending the rally fifth overall. He and co-driver Stephane Prevot had worked hard to find a new pace-note system prior to the start, and the Belgian crew were happy with their Italian performance. Duval has, however, never finished the Tour de Corse. Hirvonen is hoping for a longer rally this week, having retired from Sanremo on the second stage with engine failure. This will be the Finn's first trip to the island of Corsica, so he admits he's in the dark about what to expect from the stages.
Markko Martin said: "Corsica is a rally which should suit the Focus quite well. The stages are twisty like they were on the last round, but this time they're a bit faster. We've shown that the Focus is the fastest car on all surfaces, but for us to mount a big attack on the championship we need to win the next two rounds."
Francois Duval said: "Fifth was good in Italy, especially as there were so few retirements from the top drivers. The fact that I haven't finished the event is not such a big problem this year as there are quite a lot of new stages for all of us. If I can find the same speed - and we get a few retirements - maybe it will be possible to make it to the podium this weekend."
Mikko Hirvonen said: "I learned some stuff about driving the Focus on these traditional style asphalt rallies, but because I retired quite early in the event, I've still got more to learn this week. All I know about the roads is what I've heard from my team mates, but my main aim for this weekend is to get to the end of the event and gain as much experience as possible."
Skoda Motorsport (5th - 21 points)
Technical: Both Fabia WRCs have had a slight revision to the specification of engine, otherwise they are in largely the same shape as the last round in Italy.
Sporting: This will be Didier Auriol's 17th attempt at a rally which he has won six times before. The Frenchman admits, however, that the Skoda would need a significant increase in pace for him to reach a record-breaking seventh victory. Auriol said the Fabia was working well in Sanremo, the only problem being the engine - which he felt wasn't delivering enough power. Corsica has special memories for Auriol not simply because it's the rally he's won the most, but also because he took his first WRC win on the island. Toni Gardemeister will be looking to progress further than the second stage, which was where he crashed out of Rallye Sanremo a fortnight ago. The Finn has completed a lot of asphalt testing in the car and feels confident in the package he has for this event.
Didier Auriol said: "We have to be realistic: Corsica is going to be a tough rally for us. The car is getting better and better. The main area of development for us is the engine, but I am very happy with the handling of the car - it behaves very nicely on the road."
Toni Gardemeister said: "I prefer this event to Sanremo, the roads are more flowing and easier to get into a rhythm on. If our car stays reliable then we should be able to go after a good result, but it's impossible to try to predict what could happen on an event like this one."
Hyundai World Rally Team
Sporting: Hyundai will not start this event. The Hyundai Motor Corporation and the team which runs its cars in the FIA World Rally Championship - Motor Sport Developments - have been unable to reach a conclusion to their contractual dispute.
Martin Rowe leads the field in the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship going into the last of the seven rounds of the series. The British Subaru Impreza driver needs to finish in the top five to win the title. Toshi Arai, the only man who can still take the title away from Rowe, has a new car for this event incorporating a new roll cage which stiffens the chassis of his Subaru.