The conclusion to the 2003 FIA World Rally Championship is poised to be an action-packed affair with the final four rounds packed into a period of just 38 days, at the end of which the names of this year's champions will at last be known.

This thrilling finale will reach its climax in the dark forests of South Wales but until then all eyes will be focused on the forthcoming mini-tour of the Mediterranean rim - Sanremo, Corsica, Catalonia - where it will be the turn of the sealed-surface experts to take front stage.

The exact influence of the results of these three events in the ultimate decision remains to be seen and, for those at the sharp end of the title hunt, consistency could well pay more handsomely than the quest for outright victory. But whatever their objectives, Michelin's partners know they will have a valuable ally in the French tyre maker which has gone unbeaten on clear asphalt for the past five years.

August saw Europe suffer from a record-breaking heat wave. For many, this was followed in September by a splendid Indian summer. In the world of rallying at least, the heat is set to continue during October thanks to the asphalt marathon that WRC regulars are preparing to tackle over the busy month ahead.

From the Italian Riviera to the Costa Brava, via the island of Corsica, they face a programme of close to 1,200 km of special stages, a fifth of the season's competitive action crammed into a period of just over three weeks!

One could be forgiven for viewing this whirlwind tour as a single, long asphalt event, broken up by two neutralisations to give teams time to travel from one theatre of action to the next. Those in the thick of the fight for championship honours, however, will not fail to distinguish between the three rallies which they will see as as many opportunities to rack up points during the final sprint.

Mathematically, anything can still happen. But the scrap for the Manufacturers' title is shaping up to be a face-to-face between Citroen and Peugeot who are currently level pegging at the top of their table. The clash between the two promises to be made fiercer still by the fact that the two Michelin partners have monopolised the highest step of the podium on every clear asphalt round since October 2000! That said, as seen in Germany in July, their rivals - led by Ford-Michelin - have every intention of stemming the French makes' domination.

Meanwhile, a quartet has eased somewhat clear in the Drivers' classification. Richard Burns [Peugeot-Michelin], series leader since March, predicts the trophy will go to the driver who succeeds in finishing consistently well in each of the remaining encounters. He may not be wrong, but this theory doesn't rule out the likelihood of a quality showdown between the sport's tarmac stars in Sanremo, Corsica and Catalonia. Without forgetting that champions of the calibre of Marcus Gronholm [Peugeot-Michelin] and Colin McRae [Citroen-Michelin], who currently trail at a relative distance, certainly have no intention of surrendering their chances of adding a further title to their personal records without a fight. A clearer picture will emerge perhaps after the Italian round, but nothing - by any means - is less sure!

On the technical front...

Towards testing during events? The concentration of three asphalt rallies in the space of just four weekends is naturally not without incidence on the tyre front.

On the one hand, the current autumn dates for the Italian, French and Spanish rounds should ensure relatively mild or even cold temperatures, an advantage in terms of wear. However, the running of these events in such quick succession seriously limits the capacity of tyre firms to react from one rally to the next, not to mention the impossibility of carrying out tests to validate new evolutions. The only free weekend in October is this year given over to preparing Rally Great Britain which follows in the immediate wake of this month's asphalt marathon.

This concentration of events is that much more regrettable in that it comes on top of the testing ban in countries hosting rounds outside of Europe, a situation that goes against the rigorous spirit that is a hallmark of Michelin's approach to competition. The question arises whether testing might not one day take place during actual events...

Dry or wet, the criteria are not the same... The return to an October date for the Sanremo Rally increases the possibility of wet weather during the event.

It is known that tyres can make a significant difference on clear, dry asphalt, the rigidity and standard of today's chassis allowing drivers to exploit their covers to the limit. This is not so clear-cut however in wet conditions and/or on soiled surfaces (leaves, gravel, mud) where the tyre/car/driver association is no longer at the maximum of its performance potential. The trickier going tends to put the accent more on the driver as the preponderant element of this famous trinomial.

Testing... The majority of Michelin's testing with its partners for the Sanremo Rally took place during the heat wave that affected Europe in August. This groundwork, essentially carried out in Italy and Spain, took place exclusively in very hot temperatures, far higher than those drivers will find in October in the mountains of the Italian Riviera.

Positive progress was nonetheless made on the dry, although opportunities to work in wet conditions were more limited.

The 104 km of Teglia... The two scheduled runs through the long Teglia test (SS7 and SS10, 52.30 km) account for more than 25 per cent of the 2003 Sanremo Rally's total stage distance, a feature that prefigures a possible trend towards more frequent inclusion of uninterrupted competitive sections of up to 80 km from 2004.

Despite Teglia's length, and even though Michelin is prepared for all conditions, wear is not expected to pose a problem. Temperatures should be relatively cool (the first run takes place around 10 am. on the Saturday morning) and the surface is only moderately aggressive; a far cry in any case from the notoriously abrasive asphalt encountered in Catalonia.

Eight wins from ten... As the battle for the Manufacturers' and Drivers' crowns enters a decisive phase, Michelin's partners continue to lead both tables thanks to their eight wins from the ten rounds organised so far.

2003 Sanremo Rally in brief...

Rally Headquarters: Sanremo.Total distance: 1375.86 km.Total stage length: 387.36 kmLongest stage: 52.30 km (SS7/10, Teglia).Longest group of stages: 52.30 km (SS7, SS10).Surface type: Smooth gravel.Number of stages: 14Number of tyre changes (groups of stages): 8

Pioneers in the domain of compact itineraries, the organisers of the Sanremo Rally continue in the same vein this year with a total event distance of 1,375 kilometres including just fourteen stages (seven different tests run twice!). There are therefore few new features for what many are saying could be the last running of this historic event prior to a possible transfer of Italy's WRC qualifier to territory elsewhere in the country.

Apart form the possibility of poor weather conditions, the biggest challenge of the weekend is likely to be the long Teglia stage (52 km). If the weather proves sunny, good tyre management over the full distance of this test will be important, perhaps decisive even given that the two passes through this stage account for more than a quarter of the weekend's total competitive distance.

If the going turns stormy however, the principal difficulties will be standing water, lingering damp patches under trees between showers and the carpet of wet leaves blown onto the stage by the wind. The contributions of gravel note and weather crews promise to be more critical than ever.



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