After leading the FIA World Rally Championship for drivers since the Rally of Turkey in March, Richard Burns finally relinquished that honour in Corsica last week. The Peugeot 206 WRC driver was passed by both Carlos Sainz (Citroen) and Petter ...
After leading the FIA World Rally Championship for drivers since the Rally of Turkey in March, Richard Burns finally relinquished that honour in Corsica last week. The Peugeot 206 WRC driver was passed by both Carlos Sainz (Citroen) and Petter Solberg (Subaru), although he remains on the same points as Solberg -- but the Norwegian is ahead having won more rallies than the Englishman. Solberg was the master of the Corsican roads last week, making one of the most amazing comeback drives in the history of the championship, after he crashed his Impreza WRC2003 heavily on the pre-rally shakedown stage. The Tour of Corsica was a good indicator of what we could be in for if things turn wet in Catalunya this weekend. Weather-wise, the run-up to the rally has been wet and long-range forecasts have promised rain at some point during the next three days. Solberg, Subaru and the Pirelli tyres looked were the most competitive package, although initial pace-setters on the French island Sebastien Loeb and Markko Martin were out front until they both dropped time going off the road on the second leg of the rally.
Rally Catalunya has switched its date for this season, moving from the spring in to the autumn -- and for the 2003 running of the event, there's a raft of new stages for the teams to deal with.
Aside from the main interest of the drivers and manufacturers' championship -- with Citroen opening up an eight-point lead over Peugeot in the latter -- this event is also the penultimate round of the FIA Junior World Rally Championship, where Brice Tirabassi leads Salvador Canellas by three points ahead of Rally Catalunya.
Citroen Total (1st -- 137 points)
Technical: As on the last round in Corsica, Citroen will have four factory-specification Xsara WRCs in Catalunya, with Philippe Bugalski's car being run by Piedrafita Sport.
Sporting: Carlos Sainz arrives at his home round of the FIA World Rally Championship at the top of the standings in the drivers' championship following his second place in Catalunya. The double world champion will have the benefit of a highly partisan Spanish crowd as he attempts to retain the advantage he gained on round 12. Sainz has won this event before -- in 1995 -- but was out of luck last season when he collided with a spectator's car. Sebastien Loeb led the Tour of Corsica at the end of leg one, but a mistake early last Saturday morning put him out of the reckoning for points. The Frenchman will also be hoping to erase the memory of Catalunya 2002, when he rolled his Xsara WRC out of the event. This rally is one of Colin McRae's favourite asphalt rallies. The Scot will be looking to make a mark on what could be one of his final rallies in the championship following Citroen's decision not to retain him next season.
Carlos Sainz said: "Coming to my home rally is always a special feeling, but this year is especially nice being the leader of the championship. As for my chances of the title, I want to stay quiet -- but we will certainly know more in a few days time."
Sebastien Loeb said: "We were able to make some good times on this rally last season, and we know the car has come on since then, so it should be okay. The result in Corsica didn't help my championship chances much, but there's still a long way to go -- we need a good score here."
Colin McRae said: "This is a good rally. The roads are nice and wide, you've got room to move the car. The second run at stages are always a big challenge with all the mud and dirt on the road. It's a nice place and the rally fans are always enthusiastic."
Marlboro Peugeot Total (2nd -- 129 points)
Technical: The three official 206 WRCs will start Catalunya in the same specification in which they finished Corsica.
Sporting: Richard Burns arrives at a rally without the championship leader tag for the first time since March. Burns showed well here last season, finishing second in his 206 WRC. Burns also likes this event, despite the fact that he hasn't won it before. Marcus Gronholm has been Peugeot's asphalt pace-setter on the last two rallies, a situation which the Finn will be keen to continue in Catalunya. Gilles Panizzi struggled to find the right set-up in Sanremo and Corsica. He won here last season, and was even comfortable enough to spin his 206 for the benefit of the fans at the famous hairpin beneath the C25 road bridge. The Frenchman knows, however, he's in for a tough fight to get his Peugeot on the pace of the Citroen and Ford -- which have been the cars to beat on the sealed-surface stages
Richard Burns said: "The car felt good after shakedown. The downhill stretch of the stage was really greasy and slippery, but we found a tyre which worked well there. This is encouraging, given that we struggled quite a lot in the changeable conditions in Corsica last week."
Marcus Gronholm said: "This morning's shakedown stage was really slippery, very difficult -- I don't like these type of conditions at all. For me it's best when the weather is fully wet or fully dry." Gilles Panizzi said: "I hope I can find the feeling, have to do better than we did in Corsica -- but really this rally comes down to the weather and making the right tyre choices."
555 Subaru World Rally Team (3rd -- 88 points)
Technical: Both Subaru Impreza WRC2003's run in the same specification as on the last round in Corsica..
Sporting: Petter Solberg's win in Corsica last week was his third of the season, and his first ever on asphalt. The Norwegian now lies second in the drivers' championship, three points off leader Carlos Sainz with two rounds of the championship left. Solberg's confidence is sky high, given that he bounced back from a serious shakedown accident to win in France last week. Tommi Makinen found the early part of Corsica hard work, the four-times world champion unable to find a set-up which worked on his Impreza through the first leg. Once he'd experimented with the various transmission and suspension settings, he was happy. Following those changeable conditions, the Finn admits he is looking forward to Catalunya.
Petter Solberg said: "I'm still feeling so good after the win in Corsica. We've made some good steps with the car and the tyres and I'm feeling comfortable with my driving style in wet and mixed conditions. If we could have more of the wet weather we had in Corsica last week, that would be just perfect."
Tommi Makinen said: "A good performance in Spain depends a little bit on the weather. Rally Catalunya has always been a favourite event for me, but this year will be slightly different as some of the roads are new. We found a set-up which worked well on the last event, so I've got some good confidence for this week."
David Lapworth said: "Last week's win has given the whole team a real confidence boost ahead of Catalunya. The car, tyres and drivers work perfectly in tough conditions, but we're confident that we will be competitive in Spain whatever the conditions."
Ford Motor Company (4th -- 78 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.
Sporting: Ford arrives in Catalunya safe in the knowledge that its Focus RR WRC03 works well on asphalt, whatever the conditions. Martin posted fastest times in Corsica last week, and both the Estonian and his Belgian team-mate Duval took turns in the lead of the event. Martin's rally turned sour on the second day when he slid off the road and out of contention. A heavier accident on the final day compounded a bad weekend for the Rally Finland winner. Duval's run to third place has given him more confidence for this weekend. Number three driver Mikko Hirvonen makes his debut in Catalunya this weekend, as he did in Corsica last time out.
Markko Martin said: "Earlier in the year I said I wanted to win an asphalt round, and this is the last one of the season, so hopefully we can manage it this weekend. We've shown that the Focus is the most complete car for all surfaces, it was very strong in the wet and dry in Corsica last week."
Francois Duval said: "I am happy after the way our last rally went. The work which Stephane (Duval's co-driver) and I did with pace notes worked really well, so it would be good to build on that this weekend. It was nice to lead a rally, it would be nice to spend longer there this time -- but as with Corsica, I don't have very much experience of this rally."
Mikko Hirvonen said: "I've never done this event before, so I don't really know what to expect. For me the plan is quite simple: to get through the rally and get some kilometres in Spain."
Skoda Motorsport (5th -- 21 points)
Technical: The Skoda Fabias of Didier Auriol and Toni Gardemeister are the same cars which were used in Corsica. The electrical fault which halted Auriol's car prior to the first stage on the last rally was caused by water leaking into the system.
Sporting: Gardemeister's last outing was plagued by problems with the Skoda's rear anti-roll bars -- which also broke at shakedown this morning -- and a steering sensor fault, which affected the performance of the transmission. Despite this, the Finn brought the car to the finish of the event and bagged more valuable data on how the car works on pure asphalt rallies. His French team-mate was unable to do that, given that his only mileage in the car was from the service park to the first stage -- which was double disappointing for Auriol on an event he had won six times previously. Catalunya has also been a happy hunting ground for the 1994 world champion. He took his last WRC win on the Lloret de Mar-based event in 2001, when he was driving for Peugeot.
Didier Auriol said: "I like Catalunya, it's an interesting event. The second run through stages is always interesting on this rally; with the amount of cuts that have been taken, it's sometimes more like a gravel rally."
Toni Gardemeister said: "Corsica was a tough event for us. When we had a clean stage, the car ran very well. Hopefully we can manage that this weekend and we can improve on the place that we finished in Corsica, but the anti-roll bar problems we had this morning we not a good start."
Frenchman Brice Tirabassi leads the FIA Junior World Rally Championship ahead of this week's penultimate round in Catalunya. The Renault driver's early retirement from the last qualifying event in Sanremo has allowed the chasing pack -- led by Salvador Canellas -- to close within three points of him. Among the leading non-official drivers are Peugeot privateers Cedric Robert and Roman Kresta.