The second half of this year's FIA World Rally Championship starts with the all asphalt ADAC Rallye Deutschland. Richard Burns (Peugeot 206 WRC) still leads the race for the drivers' title, but Englishman's advantage is just one point over Spain's...
The second half of this year's FIA World Rally Championship starts with the all asphalt ADAC Rallye Deutschland. Richard Burns (Peugeot 206 WRC) still leads the race for the drivers' title, but Englishman's advantage is just one point over Spain's Carlos Sainz (Citroen Xsara WRC). Burns' team-mate and reigning world champion Marcus Gronholm is third, seven points off the lead -- having won three rallies and failed to score any points on the other four events. The series has already managed five different winners in seven rallies this year -- including a first ever WRC win for Markko Martin and Ford's Focus RS WRC03. The Estonian broke his duck on the Acropolis Rally. There's a new addition to the series on the ADAC Rallye Deutschland, as this event marks the start of a new chapter in Skoda's motorsport history, with the Czech Republic team's Fabia WRC making its debut this week.
The Trier-based eighth round of the series is not a typical asphalt rally in the WRC. The stages offer a wide variety of roads and surfaces. Tomorrow's action takes the crews into Mosel, where the super-fast straights - running through the vineyards -- are linked by oft-deceiving hairpins and square corners. Then there are the Baumholder roads which have been used for tank-testing and finally the Saarland region, where the roads aren't unlike those found in Catalunya.
Marlboro Peugeot Total (1st -- 81 points)
Technical: Many of the technical problems Peugeot suffered on the last rally in Cyprus have been attributed to the heat on that rally. The team is confident it won't encounter the same trouble on this rally. The three official 206 WRCs are in largely the same specification in which they started round seven, although Gronholm's is a new car.
Sporting: Richard Burns came close to winning here last year, eventually finishing second, while Marcus Gronholm also impressed scoring a string of fastest times after an early problem in the rally. Gronholm's run into this rally has not been ideal, the Finn suffering an infection in his elbow which meant he spent time in hospital a fortnight before the recce. This will be Gilles Panizzi's first run in a works car since Monte Carlo in January. The Frenchman has also been in the wars; a testing crash in the Baumholder region has left him nursing a broken rib. Panizzi missed this event last year after breaking his collar bone at home. Bozian Racing will run a 2003-specification for Cedric Robert, the privateer who finished sixth overall in Monte Carlo earlier in the year. Peugeot still lead the manufacturer's title race.
Richard Burns said: "As this is an asphalt rally, I won't be hampered by running first on the road -- which has handicapped me on some of the earlier gravel events this year. Last year I was second here, a similar result would be nice -- but one place higher up the leaderboard would be even better."
Marcus Gronholm said: "I was disappointed with this event last year -- I thought I could have fought for the win, that's what I'm hoping for this time around. The problem with my elbow is okay. It is a little bit sore, but it won't give me any trouble during the rally." Gilles Panizzi said: "For me to win this rally would be a very big result, given that my only experience is doing the recce for it two years ago. Not competing here last year is not good, but okay I am back in the official car and I have a big challenge ahead."
Citroen Total (2nd -- 73 points)
Technical: The team has worked on the ride height of the Xsara WRC is its pre-even testing. There are also modifications to the car's engine and the rear brakes -- which can now run on bigger discs.
Sporting: Citroen has an enviable record on this event -- having won it for the last two years. In 2002, Trier was the scene of Sebastien Loeb's first ever win in the FIA World Rally Championship, 12 months prior to that Frenchman Philippe Bugalski had guided an earlier evolution of the Xsara WRC to success. Bugalski, Citroen's test driver, returns to the team for this event, where he joins regulars Loeb, Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae. Sainz has been the most consistent points-scorer over the last three rallies, bagging 20 from a possible 30 points to close within one point of the lead in the drivers' championship. Citroen has also closed the gap on Peugeot to eight points.
Carlos Sainz said: "This is the least asphalt-like rally of all the WRC's asphalt rallies and it's not my favourite, but the Citroen has a very good record on these surfaces so we'll see what happens. I will be doing everything I can to get the best result for myself and the team."
Colin McRae said: "I'm not too keen on asphalt rallies, but I don't mind this one. It's so different from rallies like Corsica or Catalunya, the stages are all quite different on each of the legs. The speeds are quite high here -- and after Cyprus and Greece, it'll be nice to be going quickly again."
Sebastien Loeb said: "It's nice to be back where I won my first WRC rally, but at the same time there is a little more pressure to do it again -- but that's what I've come here to do. The car felt very good in the tests, we found some good roads which are representative of the stages we'll have this week."
555 Subaru World Rally Team (3rd -- 47 points)
Technical: The Subaru team has spent a lot of time enhancing the performance of the Impreza WRC 2003s of Petter Solberg and Tommi Makinen. This has been centred on the engine and electronics, but this event will also be the team's first asphalt rally since it switched damper supplier, so the suspension is new as well.
Sporting: Solberg won the last round of the championship in Cyprus and arrives in Germany with high hopes of a repeat of that ten-point performance. The Norwegian currently lies fourth in the drivers' standings. Tommi Makinen's efforts were one of the talking points of the Cyprus Rally. He dropped 28 minutes on the second leg, working on his car at the side of the stage, but recovered to set fastest time on the next stage. Unfortunately for the four-times world champion he was unable to continue in the event as he went over the time limit. Subaru moved into third place in the manufacturers' race in Cyprus and holds a four-point lead over fourth team, Ford.
Petter Solberg said: "I want the same result as last time! Our pre-event test has been really positive, everybody has worked well on the car, the Pirelli tyres work well on these type of abrasive stages, so it should be good."
Tommi Makinen said: "The car feels better than it ever has done following our tests. I'm not too sure what this rally will be like, it's earlier in the season than it was last year -- but whatever the weather is like, I'm looking forward to getting back onto asphalt."
Ford Motor Company (4th -- 43 points)
Technical: This will be the asphalt debut of the Ford Focus RS WRC03. Markko Martin's car is also the 50th Focus WRC ever to be built by M-Sport, the British-based team charged with running the Blue Oval's effort in the FIA World Rally Championship. The team has spent time re-working the hydraulics, which gave trouble on the last event -- and the car also has a slightly different front spoiler.
Sporting: Neither Martin or team-mate Francois Duval finished the last round of the championship. Martin did, however, find time to go back to his native Estonia to clinch a comfortable win on the EOS Rally at the wheel of a Focus RS WRC03. The third official Ford entry is the 2002-specification car of Finland's Mikko Hirvonen, who has never competed on this event before.
Markko Martin said: "The asphalt performance of this car is a big improvement over last year's Focus, especially the balance and handling. This is a very different rally. If it's wet, it's hard to find where the best grip is with all of the surface changes, but the vineyard stages are probably the hardest -- with all of those hidden junctions."
Francois Duval said: "Some of these stages are quite like the ones I have at home in Belgium, I enjoy those roads, but all of the dirt and gravel can make the Baumholder roads quite tricky."
Mikko Hirvonen said: "It's going to be hard for me, never having been to this event before, but I will start to get a feel for what the stages are like on the recce -- but it will be quite different when we're going through them in the rally car!"
Skoda Motorsport (5th -- 20 points)
Technical: This is the competitive world debut of the Fabia WRC. Two examples of Skoda's second ever World Rally Car will be driven by Toni Gardemeister and Didier Auriol.
Sporting: After a consistent run of four points-scoring finishes earlier in the year, Gardemeister has missed out on the final two events. His team-mate Auriol also non-scored in Cyprus and Greece, but both are in buoyant mood ahead of their first WRC outing in the new Fabia.
Didier Auriol said: "This is a very exciting time. The Fabia has gone well in testing, it's just the sort of car we need to be fighting with in the future of the world championship The car has a lot of potential, but the first rally for a completely new car is never a straightforward event."
Toni Gardemeister said: "The Fabia is quite a different car to drive compared to the Octavia, but now I have done a lot of testing in it -- I feel very comfortable at the wheel. It is a very nice car to drive. The car is coming out earlier than some people expected, but I think the time is right for us to test ourselves against our competition rather than keep on testing."
Hyundai World Rally Team (6th -- 6 points)
Technical: The team's pre-rally testing has been centred on finalising the right set-up for Rallye Deutschland. The team has also found some improvements on the performance side.
Sporting: Armin Schwarz and Freddy Loix both drive the latest specification Accent WRCs -- with the German's Accent WRC being brand new. Manfred Stohl and Justin Dale also drive current cars, with Stohl joining Schwarz and Loix as a registered points-scoring driver. Schwarz scored points on the last event, while Loix and Dale retired with overheating problems.
Armin Schwarz said: "I've never had much luck on this event, hopefully that will change this time around. The stages can be very slippery, but before our accident last year the times we were setting were competitive."
Freddy Loix said: "The stages around Saarland are similar to Belgium, so I know how to drive those -- but this is not my most favourite event in the calendar."
FIA Production Car World Rally Championship leader Toshi Arai will sit this event out, offering his fellow Subaru Impreza driver Martin Rowe a good chance to narrow the 11-point deficit the Briton has to the Japanese driver. Of the non-works cars, Jani Paasonen and Kristian Sohlberg drive two new Mitsubishi Lancer WRCs run by the Ralliart team.