Rally Preview Five months after its last visit to the country, the FIA World Rally Championship returns to Spain for the first of two consecutive asphalt events, the Rally Catalunya-Costa Daurada. The fourth of the 16-round series is considered...
Five months after its last visit to the country, the FIA World Rally Championship returns to Spain for the first of two consecutive asphalt events, the Rally Catalunya-Costa Daurada. The fourth of the 16-round series is considered to be the first 'true' asphalt event of the year and has little in common with the earlier sealed surface rally in Monte Carlo. Rally Catalunya is paired with Corsica's Tour de Corse and the same cars will contest both events with one week in between for re-preparation.
The smooth, wide roads of Rally Catalunya make it the fastest sealed surface rally of the year. Cutting corners is commonplace as drivers look for every advantage on the stages and accurate pace notes are critical to optimise the racing line. The cars ride lower to the ground than on gravel events, with the suspension set much stiffer to reduce body roll and maximise cornering speeds.
This year the rally has changed dates, moving from late autumn to early spring. The calendar shift brings with it an increased chance of rain and colder temperatures which could make the stages especially dirty and slippery.
The route shows few changes to last October's edition as organisers have opted for continuity. All the stages are located in the Priorat wine growing area in the Tarragona region, with a single service area at Salou's PortAventura theme park. There are just two tests that did not feature in 2005. One is totally new while the other is an existing test used in the opposite direction. Three other tests incorporate minor changes. After Thursday evening's ceremonial start on Salou seafront, Friday's opening leg is the longest of the rally, including 137.25km of competition. Seven different venues are used for the 16 stages, covering 346.43km, and seven tests are used twice before the Sunday afternoon finish in Salou.
Kronos Total Citroen
The 2006 calendar differs from the two previous ones in the fact that Catalunya will mark the first quarter of the season instead of New Zealand. On top of that, with the 'pair regulations', the event will be followed almost immediately by the Tour de Corse: two big slices of tarmac with a spring sauce in a 'sandwich' composed of the two events taking place on the American ground. For the event, the Kronos Total Citroen World Rally Team enters two 2006 Xsara WRCS for its usual nominated crews: reigning World Champions Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena -- who also won the event in 2005 -- and their Spanish team-mates Xevi Pons and Carlos Del Barrio. Like for the previous rounds, Dani Sordo is 'The third man'. As always co-driven by Marc Marti, the 2005 Junior World Champion will compete on the 2005 Xsara WRC that he already used on the last three occasions.
Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena: "We completed one test session around Vic, in the area where the rally took place until 2004. The stages of the Southern version of the rally compares really well with those from the North: beautiful, fast, often very soft on the surface and with the only problem of deep corners cuttings. Of course we have worked on the mechanical differentials and we now have to finetune the settings. We also worked on different small things and repeated our work on the tyres trying to take the best advantage of the BFGoodrich range. I was already satisfied with the car's balance in Monte Carlo and after this test my feeling is excellent. I am extremely happy with the work the development team of Citroen Sport has done. I hope the times will match my current satisfaction."
Xavier Pons/Carlos Del Barrio: "As I always say, first of all I want to have fun. Enjoy the rally of my region with my friends, my fans, my family. I will give everything to make a good race and not to deceive the Catalans and Spanish supporters. When I see their flags on the sides of the roads, my motivation increases even more. After last year's result, the logical target is to do better and so we'll try to finish on the podium. Without any doubts it will be difficult, there are many fast drivers on tarmac. But with a performing Xsara, the team's work and our motivation-- why not? In any case I will respect Marc Van Dalen's advice. He is the boss and he will decide if I should push hard or preserve a position for the 'Manufacturers' championship-- But I really hope he will tell me to attack!"
After three runs to the FIA World Rally Championship 2006 OMV driver Manfred Stohl takes third intermediate place. This gives rise to expectations for the future even though the next two scheduled runs, the "Rally RACC Catalunya Costa-Durada" (March 23 to 26) and the Rally Corsica (April 6 to 9) will be held on tarmac. Not exactly the 33-year-old Austrian's favourite surface. He will still try his all to remain among the big 3 in the WRC before the beginning of the gravel season. For the first time this season the OMV Peugeot Norway WRT will be competing with only one car. This is due to the fact that the team had only entered 12 rallies in the manufacturer 2-ranking at the end of entry in the middle of December 2005 -- and FIA-regulation states that they can only score at these twelve rallies in 2006 in this particular ranking. But it had also been announced in December that Manfred Stohl would compete in all 16 runs. Spain and Corsica will therefore be the first two rallies this year where Manfred Stohl will go solo in the OMV Peugeot Norway WRT and only be able to score in the driver's ranking.
Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor: It was in 2001 when Manfred Stohl had last competed at a WRC run in Spain. Back then the course was still in the vicinity of Lloret del mar. Thus the OMV driver only knows one or two special stages of the current course. Which makes the training runs all the more important. Stohl: "Ilka and I will have a lot of work ahead of us. We'll have to write completely new pace notes, since there won't be any reference points from previous years. But we are experienced enough to solve this problem, as well." In 2001 Stohl drove a Fiat Punto in the 1600-class and lead in the Junior-WRC after seven special stages before dropping back due to tyre damage. Even though tarmac might not be the Austrian's favourite surface, he is still looking forward to the Rally RACC Catalunya. "I know that the tarmac has a lot of grip there. The turn speed is supposed to be extremely high. You have to cut a very smooth line to be able to compete. But this should suit me", explains the OMV driver. He trusts the basic set-up by Bozian Racing as far as the tuning is concerned (Stohl: "They have a lot of experience and will surely get it right."). Last tests on tarmac will take place in Spain on March 20. They will be held on the former special stages of the Rally of Spain.
For the second time in five months the sweeping roads of northern Spain will host the FIA World Rally Championship, marking the competition debut of the new Ford Focus RS World Rally Car on pure asphalt. Having already proved its pace on snow, ice and gravel, the Rally de España (23 - 26 March) will provide the first chance for BP-Ford drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen to sample the car on traditional asphalt. Both Gronholm and Hirvonen feel confident about the performance of the Focus RS on sealed surfaces. The Finns have tested successfully on asphalt and both were delighted with the car's speed during January's Rallye Monte Carlo, an event that mixes asphalt with snow and ice and in which Gronholm claimed a debut victory for the BP-Ford World Rally Team.
Marcus Gronholm/Timo Rautiainen: Gronholm, winner of two of the first three rallies in the 16-round championship, recognises the importance of the next month on the season as a whole. "If you look back at 2004 the Focus RS showed what a good car it was on asphalt," said the 38-year-old Finn. "This is a new car but I've driven it enough already to know that it is competitive on that surface. We will have tough competition in Spain but anything is possible. The next two rallies are very important. Because I made a mistake in Mexico and scored only one point, I really need to win one of the next two rallies to maintain a strong championship position. "It isn't an easy event. You need to think like a racing driver on those roads. But that doesn't come naturally to me. The asphalt is quite abrasive which means we have to think about tyre selection carefully. I also remember last year when conditions were sunny and dry in the service park but raining heavily in the special stages. So accurate weather information from our personnel in the stages will be essential," added Gronholm, whose best result in Spain was second in 2004.
Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen: Twenty-five-year-old Hirvonen has fond memories of the rally, having claimed a career-best third place here in 2005. "That result was a big boost to my confidence," he admitted. "I've proved that I have the speed on loose surfaces but to score a podium here made me realise that I could reproduce the same level of speed on asphalt. I've tested the Focus RS on this surface and it's good." "This is the easiest asphalt event in the championship. It's the fastest and the roads are flowing, although they are narrower here than the roads on which we used to compete near Lloret de Mar. The stages are surprisingly bumpy in places and it's crucial to be precise with driving lines. Some sections are smooth, new asphalt and then you turn onto a really rough part which is quite abrasive. "As with any asphalt event, there will be a lot of gravel dragged onto the road and it's vital to have that information in my pace notes. I will rely on accurate information from our safety crew who drive the stages before us to check the latest conditions. Just one mistake can be costly because it's harder to regain control on asphalt than on gravel if you make an error," he added.
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford
From the gravel of Mexico to the specialist high-speed tarmac stages of Spain for Britain's youngest professional rally driver, 19 year-old Cumbrian Matthew Wilson. As if the presence of gravel was not enough, rain is threatened to further complicate matters and make tyre choice yet more important. Rally Catalunya has moved from his position late in the year and back to early spring meaning temperatures in the 20 degree Celsius range, but any relative cold and potential wet is unlikely to dampen the enthusiasm of the Spanish fans, who are amongst the most enthusiastic encountered in the year. This is only the second time that the rally has been run from its new base at Costa Daurada, but that won't diminish the speed of the tarmac specialists who only compete in certain events in the calendar as opposed to the full campaign that Wilson and co-driver Michael Orr are undertaking.The Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team is joined by Jari-Matti Latvala in Spain, the Finnish driver in his first tarmac event in a WRC car since 2003. He will be co-driven by fellow Finn, Miikka Anttila. The is also the start of the Stobart Motorsport J-WRC campaign with Brit Barry Clark and co-driver Scott Martin in the Stobart VK Ford Fiesta, which is also entered in the all-new Fiesta Sporting Trophy international.
Matthew Wilson/Michael Orr: "I'm looking forward to Spain, but it's going to be a lot more difficult than it was last time in Mexico. There could be rain, and that's going to make tyre choice crucial. There's some very good tarmac specialists in the event so I can't expect to be up the front like I was last time. I'm just going to be sensible and settle down to it and build the experience. It could help me that it's only the second time that the WRC has been held on these stages as there's less opportunity for the other guys to have built experience there, it might make a more level field."
Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila: :"I can't wait to get out in action. It's not since 2003 that I drove a WRC car on tarmac, but the stages in Spain are just right; not too fast and not too slow. The only difficult thing is making sure you use the same lines as the top guys as they cut the corners and gravel gets on the road. As long as you're on the same line that they use it's not a problem. If you try and use another line then that's where there are problems."
Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Stephane Sarrazin (co-driven by Stephane Prevot) will both drive Subaru Impreza WRC2006s and are nominated to score manufacturers' points. This will be Petter's sixth Rally Catalunya and Stephane's third. The Frenchman achieved his highest placed WRC finish in 2004 when he finished the event fourth overall in a privately-entered Subaru Impreza. Chris Atkinson will contest the rally in a Subaru Australia-entered Subaru Impreza WRC2005. The event will be Chris' second Rally Catalunya.
Petter Solberg/Phil Mills: "I'm very much looking forward to this rally. I'll be looking for a podium first of all - ideally with Marcus and Sebastien behind me - that would be perfect! It will be difficult though as these two will be the main guys. Our result was very good in Mexico and we had a positive test in Italy last week. I had a good feeling with the car and we made some improvements -- how much we will see in Spain. I'm feeling pretty confident about it, we've had a big step forward in the car since Monte Carlo, I'm looking forward to getting back out there and scoring some more points."
Stephane Sarrazin/Stephane Prevot: "I'm excited to be back in a rally again and feel very good in the car. We had one day testing last week and we worked through some set-ups and got some promising results that we can apply in Spain. I'll be doing my best job for the team. Last year wasn't such a great result but I think we can get in the top five this time and could even fight with the top three. I hope to improve on our performance in Monte Carlo and help Subaru in the manufacturers' championship."
Chris Atkinson/Glen MacNeall: "Last year we had a solid event in Spain and we showed a fast pace considering our level of asphalt experience at the time. Competing in Rally Ireland last weekend has massively increased our understanding of driving on an asphalt surface, especially of driving in the wet. This will help our performance particularly if we encounter similar weather in Spain. I hope to continue to improve in this rally."
Red Bull-Skoda Team
After a short break -- Mexico was not contested -- the first big tarmac challenge awaits the Red Bull Skoda Team, run by BRR (Baumschlager Rallye & Racing), in the Spanish round of the WRC, the fourth event of the season. Appropriately, preparations in the shape of successful test sessions for Aigner and Panizzi in Spain were intense.
Gilles Panizzi/Herve Panizzi: Gilles Panizzi, a true tarmac specialist, has already won this rally twice before, in 2002 and 2003: "I am 100 percent motivated, and I will give it my all, just like earlier this year during the first leg of the Monte Carlo Rally. Of course Sebastian Loeb is the measure of all things in Spain. I will try nonetheless to set fast times with a good setup and achieve for Skoda the best result possible with the help of the engineers and the entire team." Like in Monte Carlo, Panizzi will have to use a passive differential in Spain to meet regulations.
Andreas Aigner/Timo Gottschalk: Andreas will start his third world championship event at the wheel of the Skoda Fabia WRC in Spain after finishing 13th in Monte Carlo and retiring in Sweden: "I am really looking forward to the task ahead. Once again, I need to put in a flawless drive and finish the rally with a solid performance. Each and every kilometre will help me along, since the next rally in Corsica will be on tarmac as well."