The Intercontinental Rally Challenge will hold its first-ever event in Spain this weekend, when competitors take in the all-asphalt Principe de Asturias Rally, based in the city of Oviedo - the birthplace of F1 star Fernando Alonso.

The Principe de Asturias Rally has run as a round of the Spanish Championship for many years, but this is the first time that it will count as a round in the IRC.

For the vast majority of the regular IRC drivers then it will represent a leap into the unknown and that will give the local crews an advantage, especially reigning IRC champion Enrique Garcia Ojeda.

The Peugeot Spain driver will be making his second appearance in the IRC this year, following his participation in the Barum Rally Zlin last month, and he is sure to be a strong contender for victory.

"This is the most charismatic round of the Spanish Championship," said Ojeda. "I love the atmosphere and there are always big crowds. I enjoy its stages, too. It's not as fast as the recent Barum Rally Zlin. The stages in the mountains bear Oviedo are narrower. It's more like the Sanremo.

"The roads give average grip and there are a few slippery, trickier portions. I know the stages well following my victory last year when the route was identical. I am fully aware, though, that my rivals in the IRC are all very quick. It promises to be very close. The first day will be particularly tough, with a menu of nine stages totalling more than 150 km."

Another Spanish contender making a welcome return to the IRC is former Junior World Rally champion Dani Sola, who will be present once more in a privately-entered Abarth Grande Punto.

They will both be challenged by other leading lights in the Spanish Championship, such as Miguel Fuster in an Abarth Grande Punto and Yeray Lemes in a Mitsubishi Lancer - all of whom are determined to use their local knowledge to upset the established order.

Joining them on this all-new event will be the IRC regulars fighting it out for the title, and they will find it difficult to know just how hard to push on unfamiliar territory.

Peugeot Italy's Luca Rossetti is unable to compete on the event as he has clashing commitments back home in Italy, so this is a golden opportunity for Peugeot Belgium's Nicolas Vouilloz to extend his championship lead.

Vouilloz currently has an eight-point advantage, while his team-mate Freddy Loix is third and also has the chance to move up the leaderboard.

"For me, this rally is going to be something completely different," said Loix. "I've got experience of the Catalunya Rally, where I once finished second, but as this is the other end of the country I imagine that the stages in the Asturias region will be completely different.

"In any case, it is all the same to me as my tactic is unaltered: I have to go flat-out to try and win the rally. It's not been the best start to the season for me but now we have some momentum on our side so we have to try and continue this winning streak: it's the only option. I'll be going for it from the start."

The factory Abarth team of Giandomenico Basso and Anton Alen are hoping for better things in Spain after a disappointing outing on the Barum Rally Zlin, while another strong candidate for victory is Peugeot Portugal driver Bruno Magalhaes, who showed his rivals the way to go in Madeira before being set back by a puncture.

"This is going to be a very important rally for us, as our team had some gearbox problems on the last round in the Czech Republic and it's crucial that these are put behind us now," said Alen.

"Although I have very little experience of asphalt, Spain could be a bit better for me, as nobody else knows this rally either. After this event we have two more asphalt rallies coming up in Sanremo and Valais so this will be a really good opportunity for us to have some extra asphalt practice in preparation for these events."

The IRC 2WD Cup meanwhile has proved to be extremely closely-contested so far in its short history, with several drivers challenging for the title. Nonetheless, Italian Fiat Punto Diesel driver Marco Cavigioli holds a five-point lead and he is hoping for a strong result in Spain to maintain his advantage. One of his biggest challengers will be Alessandro Bettega, who is back at the wheel of the Honda Civic Type R R3 after a successful test.

"We've carried out some tests to improve the handling of the car on bumpy asphalt, particularly with regard to the rear damping, and I think we've come up with some extremely positive results," Bettega revealed.

"I'm looking forward to Spain a lot. We've not had the performance we hoped for so far, but we've all worked extremely hard to resolve the issues we have faced, and I'm sure that our reward will come with some concrete results very soon."

The Principe de Asturias Rally gets underway with a ceremonial start from Paseo del Bombe in Oviedo on Thursday September 11 at 20:30, but the real action begins on Friday morning with the first of 15 special stages totalling 249.77 competitive kilometres. The centralised service park is located at the aerodrome in La Morgal, with the rally finish scheduled for Saturday September 14 at 16:30 back in Oviedo [all times local].


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