With four events to go between now and the end of the 2003 FIA World Rally championship, four latest-specification Citroen Xsara WRCs have been entered for the 2003 Sanremo Rally. Namely three for the team's usual crews Colin McRae/Derek Ringer, Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti, plus, as in Germany, a further car for Philippe Bugalski/Jean-Paul Chiaroni whose Citroen will be run by the Spanish outfit Piedrafita Sport.

The Sanremo Rally's route in the mountains that tower over the Italian Riviera is a case study in compactness. To meet the total competitive distance required by the regulations, just seven different stages will be used and these will cover the full spectrum of asphalt types and therefore degrees of wear.

The tests chosen are frequently very twisty and never far from the coast, even though they climb rapidly to altitudes of around the 1,000-metre mark. The total stage distance of most of the groups programmed by the organisers is between 40 and 50 kilometres, the highlight being the 52,3 km 'Teglia' test, the longest asphalt stage we have seen in a long, long time.

Finally, the Italian round's date is two weeks later in the year compared with 2002 and that could prove important as far as prevailing weather is concerned, for the celebrated depression traditionally centred over the Gulf of Genoa is not far away at all...

The bottom line of all this, although perhaps slightly over simplified, is that this year's Sanremo Rally could well be about tyres and tyre choice. The latter, which will be made up to two hours prior to the start of certain stages, effectively promise to be crucial. The morning dampness blown in by sea winds, sudden changes in atmospheric conditions, the length of the groups of stages and the corresponding rate of wear are all factors which, if anticipated, can become keys to success.

To optimise preparations for the Sanremo Rally, and indeed for the remainder of the season, Citroen Sport gave each of its drivers a chance to do two days of testing, one in Italy, the other in Catalonia. These sessions were used to carefully fine-tune suspension and transmission settings as well as to carry out further testing of the bigger diameter rear brake discs first seen in Germany. The programme also gave drivers the opportunity to discover the latest dry weather tyres produced for Citroen by its partner Michelin. These tests, which focused on performance and endurance, allowed all four drivers to establish a clear picture of each one, work that could well prove valuable when the time comes to make certain choices.

The Sanremo Rally sees the championship return to asphalt and, indeed, kicks off a series of three events in quick succession on this type of surface. Something that hasn't escaped Guy Frequelin is the importance of the psychological factor and the edge it can give. His message is clear: "We will have to throw all our strength into the battle if we are to raise the game to the level of what the team has achieved so far!"