WRC

Rally Catalunya: Round 15 preview

Rally Teams travel to Spain for the penultimate round of the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship, Rally Catalunya. Beginning on 28 October with a ceremonial start in the coastal resort of Lloret de Mar, the event follows the Tour De Corse as the ...

Rally Teams travel to Spain for the penultimate round of the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship, Rally Catalunya. Beginning on 28 October with a ceremonial start in the coastal resort of Lloret de Mar, the event follows the Tour De Corse as the second consecutive Mediterranean asphalt rally.

Unlike the narrow, twisty stages of Corsica, Catalunya's roads are wider, faster and more flowing with a smooth surface that makes them like a racetrack in places. The width of the stages and lack of roadside obstructions encourages 'cutting' where drivers clip the apex of corners in search of the straightest route and fastest racing line. This aggressive style calls for super accurate pace notes and can mean those cars further down the running order encounter slippery conditions as gravel and dirt is dragged onto the road.

An October date in the WRC calendar means autumnal weather for Rally Catalunya, and this usually means unsettled conditions with a good possibility of rain. With many stages run at altitude on mountain roads, weather forecasting and tyre choices are hard to call.

Although both the 2004 manufacturers' and drivers' titles were decided in Corsica, the battle is still on for second place in the drivers' Championship with three individuals able to take the runner-up position. Subaru's Petter Solberg leads the fight with a current total of 78 championship points, while Ford's Markko Martin has 69 points and Carlos Sainz 67.

Carlos Sainz will be retiring at the end of the 2004 season. The Spaniard will be driving a WRC car for the last time in front of his home crowd this weekend. An important meeting for the popular Citroën driver.

The Catalunya Rally is 40 years old this year although it has only been a WRC event since 1991 when it was won by Armin Schwarz. The rally has provided spectacular entertainment for the thousands of passionate Spanish fans who line the stages. Since 1993 the event has been an all-asphalt rally after switching, like Sanremo, from a mixture of gravel and asphalt. However it is anticipated that this will be the final year of an asphalt Catalunya before the rally switches to a gravel format next season.

All three days are again based around a single service park 80km north-west of the daily start and finish location in the holiday resort of Lloret de Mar. Ten different special stages will each be used twice, and the now familiar format of two loops of tests, split by a service in the middle, comprises each day. However, only seven stretches of road will be used as many sections are used in both directions on different days. The event begins with a ceremonial start in Lloret de Mar on Thursday evening. Drivers face 20 stages in total, covering 384.08km of competition in a total route of 1721.19km. The second leg is the longest, comprising eight stages which cover 162.88km. The final day includes two passes over the 35.18km Viladrau test, the longest of the event. It includes the famous and much-photographed hairpin beneath the motorway bridge, one of the most popular viewing points of the entire season.

Citroen

Since the Tour of Corsica, a red flag emblazoned with Citroën's double chevron logo has been flying at the summit of world class rallying. Yet despite having sewn up both the 2004 Manufacturers' and Drivers' title chases in imperious fashion in Ajaccio, the French team's hunger for success has not been totally appeased. Indeed, the Versailles-Satory based squad is as fired up as ever and has set itself the demanding target of winning the last rounds of the year, Spain and Australia. True to his word, Guy Frequelin has chosen to given a free rein to Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti, who will be out to end the season in the top-three of the final points table, and to freshly crowned champions Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena. Both crews will therefore be free to tackle these rallies as they see fit, without the concern of having to score points. From the team's five starts in Spain to date, it has enjoyed four excellent years, including three in which it dominated, yet it has but one win to show for its efforts. And that score, although a source of added motivation, also encourages caution. Every year effectively presents its own challenge.

Sebastien Loeb / Daniel Elena: A week after clinching the title in Corsica, how does it feel to be World Champion? It's been a moment to savour despite the considerable demands which in themselves suggest we have achieved something big. We have accomplished our mission and done what all rally drivers dream of. When I saw that I could match Carlos and Colin McRae on the loose, I knew it was possible. I have now done it, and it all happened so quickly because I was fortunate to be in the best team.

Loeb on the Catalonia stages - "Globally, the stages are wider, smoother and faster than in Corsica and many of the apexes tend to cut up so that the car is frequently riding on the sump guard. It's a nice event that went well for me when I was driving in Super 1600 and I came close to winning outright last year. I feel comfortable on these roads which are more akin to circuit racing. Curiously, though, I always find the recce quite difficult. Happily, there are only thirty or so kilometres that are new this year. As far as the weather goes, we coped well last year. If the conditions are again damp and cold, I don't see that being a particular problem."

Carlos Sainz / Marc Marti: How do you feel now you have announced your decision to retire at the end of the season? It's something of a special moment. A little difficult. I have thought long and hard about my decision and I have no intention of coming back on it. There are moments when I feel a little sad, when I remember all the joy I have had in rallying and when I think that will soon all be over. At other times, I think of all the things I am now going to be able to do with my family and friends. For the moment, you could say I have mixed feelings--

Your podium finish rate in Catalonia is half that of your overall career, while your retirement rate here is nearly double. Is there a Spanish equivalent to the proverb; 'nobody is prophet in their own country'? There are effectively one or two proverbs that mean pretty much the same thing. I have to admit that my home round has not been my successful event and, strangely, I have no explanation for that. It's a rally I like, I enjoy its stages and I always benefit from huge support-- That said, even though my Catalonia Rally record isn't excellent, I have still won it twice.

Subaru

The Subaru World Rally Team will enter two cars in Spain, driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Mikko Hirvonen (co-driven by Jarmo Lehtinen). Petter Solberg has contested the event three times before and finished in the points twice. His young Finnish team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen, has taken part once before and finished fourteenth.

Petter Solberg / Phil Mills: Rally Catalunya is a good event. It's really well organised, with good crowds, a good atmosphere and nice wide, flowing roads. We'll go there and try to do the best we can. Despite the Championship having been decided, I'm still motivated and want to get the highest result possible. I'm still in the fight for second place in the overall driver standings and am looking forward to defending my position. However, having seen Markko Martin's performance in Corsica, I know he'll be pushing hard for a good result in Spain too and I think he'll be the man to beat.

Mikko Hirvonen / Jarmo Lehtinen: I learned a lot about the car and tyres on asphalt in Corsica and picked up my pace as the event went on. I think that will help for Spain, the surface is much consistent there, and although that is perhaps not so good for us, we've definitely learned things that we can take forward and use here. I understand more about which tyres suit which conditions now and think it will be a good rally. It's more fun when the roads are a little wider and you can cut the corners, and you have to ensure that you have a perfect racing line through every bend so you don't lose too much time. I'm looking forward to it.

Ford

After a dominant victory earlier this month on the asphalt roads of Corsica, BP-Ford World Rally Team heads to the sealed surface roads of northern Spain next week intent on reproducing the same form. The team's Ford Focus RS World Rally Car was a class above its rivals on the Rallye de France and the Rally Catalunya (28 - 31 October) is another all-asphalt event which is likely to suit the car. Drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park and team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot dominated the island event, winning 10 of the 12 speed tests. Martin and Duval were on course for a one-two finish until Duval's final day retirement. But Martin's victory was just reward for the new-design Focus RS, which has long had the reputation as being the best asphalt car without delivering the win to back up that claim.

Markko Martin / Michael Park: Martin, whose maiden asphalt victory in Corsica lifted him to third in the drivers' championship, has competed four times in Spain. Third last year in a Castrol-branded Focus RS was his best result. "The car is competitive everywhere but our result in Corsica confirmed to me that the Focus RS is the fastest rally car on asphalt," said the 28-year-old Estonian. "We have to ensure we can reach the same level in Spain. There are not so many differences between the two events, although Rally Catalunya is smoother and faster and a driver can take a straighter line through the corners. It's more straight forward than Corsica, although that doesn't mean it isn't difficult. The stages are nice and flowing and it's my favourite asphalt rally." Martin's confidence has been boosted by the return of safety crews, who drive the stages ahead of the competitors to provide accurate data on road and weather conditions. "Henrik Lundgaard did a superb job in Corsica. He will not be available in Spain but our safety crew will again be important. Because drivers cut the corners so often, stones and gravel are dragged onto the roads during the first pass. Accurate information about the slippery sections is vital from a safety aspect," he added.

Francios Duval / Philippe Droeven: Twenty-three-year-old Duval finished fourth in Spain last year, although the Belgian admits he is not a big fan of the event. "The Spanish roads are always slippery and wide and sometimes it is like driving on a race circuit," he said. "I don't like the stages so much because I prefer more difficult roads that are twisty and narrow. It's my least favourite asphalt event. I prefer Corsica, Monte Carlo and Germany. But after our pace in Corsica, I think it's possible to finish on the podium and that would be a good result for me. "Last year the amount of gravel dragged onto on the stages during the first run was terrible. It made conditions difficult for the second pass and I'm sure it will be the same this year. But the situation is even more difficult because some stages are used in one direction one day, and then we drive them the opposite way later in the rally. Obviously the driving line in one direction is different to the opposite way, and so we find gravel in some fairly unusual places. We have to be careful not to make any mistakes," he added.

Peugeot

After its home round, the Tour of Corsica, Peugeot Sport's 2004 World Championship campaign continues with another longstanding asphalt fixture of the WRC calendar, Rally de Catalunya -- Rally de Espana. Marcus Gronholm and Freddy Loix will be driving the two 307 WRCs in a bid to prolong Peugeot's run of three consecutive wins in Spain with the 206 WRC, in 2001, 2002 and 2003. Marcus Gronholm has driven four times for Peugeot in Catalonia where his record includes a 5th place in 2000, a 4th place in 2002 and a 6th place in 2003. This year's visit will be a further chance for the two-times World Champion to score his maiden win on asphalt, an achievement that is still missing from his otherwise prestigious record. Although he believes he has a better feeling over the much twistier stages of Corsica, his talent and combative spirit will enable him to aim for the best result possible in Lloret de Mar. Meanwhile, Freddy Loix enjoys this rally on which he came 2nd in 1998, in addition to three 4th place finishes in 1996, 1999 and 2001.

Marcus Gronholm / Timo Rautiainen: No Quote available.

Freddy Loix / Sven Smeets: "I must have started this event eight or nine times and it's true that I have obtained a number of good results here. I like the Spanish stages which are faster than those of Corsica. Having grown up in the sport in Belgium, I am used to this type of event and I also believe our car will be more competitive on these stages. After my performances in Germany and Corsica, and given the work we have done since, I think I can score a top result in Spain."

Skoda

Skoda Motorsport concludes its reduced 2004 World Rally Championship programme for the Fabia WRC at the Catalunya Rally (October 29-31). On this occasion the regular driver line-up of Armin Schwarz and Toni Gardemeister will be joined by Czech Rally Championship leader Jan Kopecky for his first WRC outing in the Fabia WRC.

Armin Schwarz / Manfred Hiemer: "I always look forward to this rally. Spain is a lovely country, the people are really nice and the rally has a great atmosphere. The roads are completely different to Corsica because you cut the corners a lot and that can make it quite exciting. The road surface changes between smooth and bumpy and the grip levels can change just as much between old tarmac and new so tyre wear has to be considered. All I need now is to repeat my 1991 result!"

Toni Gardemeister / Paavo Lukander: "Catalunya is a good rally and one that I enjoy more than Corsica. The roads flow a lot better so they suit my driving style more. We had a lot of difficulty with the weather in Corsica because it was so changeable but in Catalunya that's not usually a problem so I think everything should be better for us this time."

Jani Paasonen / Jani Vainikka: "This is an important rally for me. I want to gain as much experience of several different situations so I going to Spain to learn as much as possible. My overall result is not so important. What matters is trying to reach the finish and to understand the challenge of asphalt events at this level."

Weather Forecast

Typically this time of year produces unsettled conditions with a good possibility of rain.

-wrc-

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team