The Intercontinental Rally Challenge heads behind the former iron curtain this week for round six of the series, the Rally Russia.

Following the complex and narrow asphalt roads of Ypres, Russia provides a complete contrast with its wide and flowing gravel stages, which some drivers have compared to the classic speed tests of Finland.

This comes as no surprise given that the rally is based in Vyborg, which is less than 100 kilometres from the Finnish border.

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The stages in Russia are mostly made up of compacted gravel roads, which can be as smooth as a motorway in the right conditions.

However, the surface can cut up after several cars have been through, exposing sharp rocks that are capable of causing punctures. These are often in evidence through the corners, where the competitors try to save time by cutting the ideal line in order to find the quickest trajectory.

Whereas Finland is well known for its rollercoaster crests, the roads in Russia tend to be flatter but no less spectacular.

The weather in Russia at this time of year is usually warm, but sudden rainstorms are far from unknown - and these can turn the rally on its head in an instant.

This unique mix of stages and weather, coupled with the risk of punctures, makes tyre choice even more complex than usual. But it is an event that tends to favour the usual gravel specialists: in particular the Finns, who are virtually playing at home. For the past two years, the winner of the Rally Russia has been from Finland.

Since joining the IRC two years ago, the Rally Russia has gradually expanded, and this year it is up to 15 stages and 223.45 competitive kilometres.

The start of the event takes place on the evening of Thursday 9 July from the podium in Vyborg, with an opening leg of four stages that ends late at night. For the first time night stages are set to be a feature of Rally Russia, adding yet another challenging element to what is already an extremely technical event.

The action then re-starts on the morning of Friday 10 July, with six stages divided into two identical loops of three. Amongst them is the longest stage of the rally - the legendary 29.31-kilometre Topolki test, reckoned to be the most challenging of the entire event.

The rally concludes with five stages on the Saturday before the finish back in Vyborg at 15:00 hours.

The entry list for the event contains both the latest new manufacturers to join the series.

The factory Skoda team, headed by last year's Rally Russia winner Juho Hanninen, is first off the ramp in Vyborg - north of St Petersburg - on Thursday night.

Also on the entry list is the new Proton Satria S2000, driven by Guy Wilks, which made a promising debut on the Belgium Ypres Rally last month. Like Hanninen, Wilks has previous experience of the Rally Russia after leading the IRC 2WD class in Vyborg last year, at the wheel of a Honda.

The inaugural Rally Russia was won by Finland's Anton Alen - the son of the legendary Anton Alen - and the Abarth driver was once more in strong contention for victory last year before his charge was halted by a double puncture.

The second driver off the start ramp, following Hanninen, is Alen's team-mate Giandomenico Basso. The Italian, a former European champion, has also proved himself to be a strong force on gravel rallies such as Russia. With the Abarth team benefiting greatly from its test in Italy, the mood is upbeat.

Significantly, the European Peugeot teams have chosen not to contest Rally Russia as under the IRC regulations only seven from eight scores count. With Kris Meeke on 30 points and Skoda's Jan Kopecky on 21 points, a top result for the popular Czech driver could deprive Meeke of the lead.

However Peugeot will be represented by Russian driver Aleksandr Zheludov, who takes the wheel of a 207 S2000 for the first time.

Also out in Russia will be several other strong local drivers, such as Andrei Zhighunov in a Mitsubishi. With several Mitsubishi entries, the official Ralliart brand stands to benefit greatly in the IRC manufacturers' standings.

Another driver contesting the event in a Mitsubishi is the Austrian Franz Wittmann, who has put together a comprehensive IRC programme this year.

The battle for IRC 2WD Cup honours meanwhile will be equally close. Three IRC registered manufacturers will be represented: Honda (the last 2WD winners in Ypres), Peugeot and Volkswagen. None of the IRC 2WD Cup leaders however, are planning to contest the event, so this is a vital opportunity for their rivals to try and close the gap.

Rally Russia runs from July 9-11.