A strong field will head to Latvia next weekend for the second round of the new FIA European Rally Championship season, Rally Liepāja-Ventspils.
With the bulk of the stages taking place on high-speed country roads coated with snow and ice and littered with sweeping turns, jumps, dips and blind crests, the action is expected to be red hot, with extensive coverage available on Eurosport.
Forty crews will be in action on 15 stages split between three legs over a competitive distance of 243.00 kilometres. However, because the distance covered on leg one does not exceed 25 per cent of the total competitive length, bonus points will only be handed out to the top seven competitors in the overall, Production Car Cup and 2WD classifications after legs two and three.
One of several exciting elements of Rally Liepāja-Ventspils will be the Qualifying Stage, which gets underway at 09:30hrs local time on Friday 1 February on a 5.89-kilometre course. Following a period of Free Practice, 12 priority crews get one run to go as fast as possible.
At 13:00hrs local time following the pre-event press conference, the quickest driver in qualifying will select their starting position for later in the day first with the second fastest driver next to choose and so on until all drivers have made their selection. Non-priority drivers will start leg one in seeded order.
Road position can be crucial on loose-surface rallies. On snow events, the preference is to start lower down the order in the event of recent snowfall to benefit from a more compact and stable surface. However, it can also pay to start closer to the front of the field if the stage surface deteriorates with ruts forming and the gravel base beneath becoming exposed.
While the battle for outright victory is likely to be between leading seeds Jari Ketomaa, Craig Breen and François Delecour, one driver set to attract significant attention will be Inessa Tushkanova. The 25-year-old glamour model from Ukraine will compete for FIA ERC Production Car Cup honours where her rivals will include top Russian Alexey Lukyanuk, rapid Estonian youngster Siim Plangi and talented Czech Jaroslav Orsák. All four will drive Mitsubishi Lancers.
“I don't have any hopes and dreams about big prizes in Latvia, but I find it very important to participate in the rally for my career since the level of ERC is very high and my plans for rally do not stop after one year,” said Tushkanova.
The ERC 2WD Championship will also provide plenty of action with category leader Hannes Danzinger (Renault Clio R3) up against, among others, top Latvian Ralfs Sirmacis (Ford Fiesta R2) and Italian Elwis Chentre (ŠKODA Fabia R2). Stéphane Lefebvre, meanwhile, will be giving Peugeot's 208 R2 its ERC debut.
As well as Peugeot 207 Super 2000 drivers Breen and Delecour and Ford Fiesta RRC-mounted Ketomaa, Jan Černý, who will pilot a Fabia S2000, is the reigning ERC 2WD champion and a future prospect, while Antonín Tlusťák is due to prepare for Rally Liepāja-Ventspils by contesting the Halls Winter Rally in Lithuania. Raimonds Kisiels is the highest-seeded local driver in a MINI John Cooper Works S2000.