With the exception of January's Monte Carlo and the Deutschland Rally in June, the 2003 World Rally Championship has essentially focused so far on gravel and snow. October will see a shift in emphasis however with a sequence of three all-asphalt...
With the exception of January's Monte Carlo and the Deutschland Rally in June, the 2003 World Rally Championship has essentially focused so far on gravel and snow. October will see a shift in emphasis however with a sequence of three all-asphalt encounters – in Italy, Corsica and Spain – before the current campaign draws to a close early November in the forests of South Wales.
This shift takes place at a time when the fights for the Manufacturers' and Drivers' championships, both of which continue to be led by Peugeot, are proving to be exceptionally open affairs, and the French team will need all its experience and expertise to counter the charge of its rivals.
The first of the three forthcoming asphalt rounds is the Sanremo Rally, traditionally happy hunting ground for the Peugeot 206 WRC which, in the hands of Gilles Panizzi, has gone unbeaten in Italy for the past three years. Indeed, the Frenchman will be looking to finish the season in style with a fourth consectuive victory, while his teammates Richard Burns and Marcus Grönholm will also be aiming for top results on the Italian Riviera.
Peugeot Sport made the recent visit to Australia in parallel circumstances to those that precede its trip to Sanremo: not only did it lead both the Drivers' and Manufacturers' championships, but Marcus Grönholm was also looking for a fourth consecutive win in Perth. That possibility was dashed however when he left the road on the opening day. But by finishing third and seventh respectively, Richard Burns and Harri Rovanperä came away from the event with valuable extra points that could well weigh heavily in the balance at the end of the season.
Prior to the Sanremo Rally, eleventh round of the fourteen-round 2003 calendar, Peugeot Sport continues to lead the provisional Manufacturers' classification, although it has now been joined at the top by Citroën. With a capital of 110 points each, the two French firms have pulled clear of Subaru and Ford who follow in third and fourth places with 74 and 61 points respectively. In the Drivers' championship, Richard Burns now enjoys a cushion of seven points over Carlos Sainz and Petter Solberg. Sébastien Loeb follows a further three points down, while Marcus Grönholm has fallen down the table after his retirement in Australia. He is currently seventeen points adrift of Burns, but given that a win is worth ten points and that four rallies have yet to come, anything is still possible between now and the end of the year.
Since 1997, the Sanremo Rally has been an all-asphalt contest based in mountains neighbouring those that overlook Monte Carlo. But in contrast to the celebrated winter classic, the Italian round generally takes place in warm end-of-summer sunshine, although the risk of showers is never far away to potentially complicate matters as far as tyre choice is concerned.
Gilles Panizzi is something of a Sanremo expert of this rally and, along with former Italian World Champion Miki Biasion, is one of only two drivers to have won the event three times in a row. French drivers have an eloquent record on the Italian round (eleven wins compared with fourteen for their Italian counterparts and seven for the Finns) and Gilles Panizzi is keen to conclude 2003 with some top results: "I will do my best to help Peugeot win a fourth consecutive world crown. It's an objective that doesn't call for subtle strategies. Given our position in the current standings, and given the number of rallies left to come, the best tactic will be maximum attack. I firmly believe in our chances, as long as the car is as balanced as it was last year."
Marcus Grönholm has competed on the Sanremo Rally on four previous occasions with the 206 WRC, finishing 2nd in 2002, 7th in 2001, 4th in 2000 and 8th in 1999. The Finn recently emerged as Peugeot's best-placed finisher on the Deutschland Rally where he was involved in the fight for victory all the way to the flag. His maiden win on asphalt has still to come however, but he definitely seems to be getting closer and closer to this goal all the time. And he certainly doesn't discount the possibility that it might be achieved in Italy! "As was the case in Germany, I hope I will be in a position to challenge for outright victory in Italy if I don't hit any problems. I really need a win to keep my championship hopes alive," comments the reigning World Champion who has by no means given up hope of keeping his crown and who will be out to do all he can for his team.
Richard Burns is still in front in the Drivers' championship thanks to his remarkable consistency which has seen him secure points in nine of the ten rounds organised to date. The Briton will attempt to extend his recent run of podium finishes on an event that has seen himmeet with mixed fortunes in the past, including three retirements on the trot in 1999, 2000 and 2001, followed by 4th place in 2002, his first season in Peugeot colours.