The Barum Czech Rally Zlin, round eight of eleven in this year's Intercontinental Rally Challenge, takes place this weekend, with a huge entry including no fewer than 25 of the top-flight Super 2000 machines - another record attendance for the IRC.
A truly iconic rally in Europe, the Barum Czech Rally Zlin is the foremost motor sport event in the Czech Republic. As a result the event draws enormous interest, all the more so in 2009 as the works Skoda Motorsport team attempts to unseat the leading Peugeot runners from the top of this year's championship tables.
Skoda missed the previous round, the Rali Vinho Madeira earlier this month, in order to focus its pair of Fabia S2000 machines on an all-out assault on its home event. Asphalt ace Jan Kopecky sits just five points behind current series leader Kris Meeke with three rounds remaining, and as his team-mate Juho Hanninen suggested, there is enormous pressure for the 27-year-old to soak up.
“The pressure will be on Jan because he is a Czech driver in a Czech car and is very quick,” Skoda's Finnish gravel star said. “For me, it will be my first time there so I am not expecting anything too much. A top-five finish would be good.”
Piling pressure on Kopecky, championship leader Meeke himself said he expects to see his Skoda rival take the honours on the event.
“Jan showed in Ypres how quick he could be and I'm sure there will be no driver quicker than him,” he said. “He knows the event well and he'll be wanting to prove he's the top Czech driver.”
Once again Meeke heads a large entry of Peugeot 207 S2000 machines, including the two Benelux-entered cars of Belgian star Freddy Loix and France's defending IRC champion Nicolas Vouilloz. Among the other Peugeot runners are some extremely fast and experienced Czech runners, such as Pavel Valousek, ex-Skoda WRC man Roman Kresta and the BF Goodrich Drivers Team entry of newly-crowned Junior World Rally Championship winner, Martin Prokop.
Coming into the Barum Czech Rally Zlin on a high is the Abarth squad, after team leader Giandomenico Basso won the last event in Madeira to boost himself into the IRC title race. The second of the team's Grande Punto S2000 machines will be driven once again by Luca Rossetti, as the all-Italian squad catches up on its Skoda and Peugeot rivals.
Meanwhile, among the 'guest' entries on the event will be the Citroen Junior WRC Team member, Evgeny Novikov.
The teenage Russian is the third and final member of the Citroen squad to have competed in this year's IRC, after his French team-mate Sebastien Ogier took a stunning victory on round one in Monte Carlo when he drove the BF Goodrich Drivers Team Peugeot, and was followed by young Zimbabwean Conrad Rautenbach when he drove a Peugeot on the Rally Azores. Novikov will drive a Skoda Fabia S2000 and is expected to have new co-driver Stephane Prevot alongside him.