Chris Birkbeck [Birkbeck Racing] and Luca Pregliasco [Astra Racing] will each run a Ford Puma in the Junior WRC in Spain this weekend - Birkbeck with Guy Wilks and Pregliasco with Abdo Feghali, here they talk about their aims for the event and more...

Q:
Chris [Birkbeck], how have you prepared Guy's Ford Puma for this event?
Chris Birkbeck:
The main change we have made from the Sanremo car is altering the set up to cope with cutting the corners. Generally speed is higher in Catalunya - the average speed was 90kph last year, and in Sanremo it was 86.2kph - so we make small adjustments where necessary, such as slightly different camber and damper settings. We've done this event four times so we also know how important it is to use your tyre allocation carefully. With just 24 tyres for the whole event you have to be strategic in how you use them. For example, if you use all the wet tyre allocation and suddenly the weather changes on the last day such as it did in Italy, it can be a disaster, so it is important to be careful in your selection.
Q:
What are the biggest challenges in Spain?
CB:
Last year driver feedback told us that Catalunya was in essence a gravel rally because there's so much dirt dragged onto the road by the time the JWRC competitors get to the stages. The key to preparing for this is making the most of the recce and really 'reading' the road. For example it's important to note if a cut looks loose, as it will definitely bring a lot of dirt onto the road during the rally, so you have to note to compensate. There's no point in not taking the line as that just drops you too far down time wise. And of course with cutting there's always the danger of punctures. So it's not an easy event - it's a true 'thinking man's rally'. Then of course, there's always the weather - and having not run at this time of year before it's hard to predict what will happen. If it rains, the cut roads will get even more dirty and slippery, in which case it could make life difficult.
Q:
What are your expectations of Guy on this event?
CB:
Sanremo was the first true European asphalt rally for Guy and naturally a big learning curve. He showed he has the potential to be competitive in the Puma, which was encouraging, so now it's a matter of drawing on those experiences to make the most of Catalunya. Before Sanremo we felt a top five result was on the cards, but given his performance we now feel a podium place is achievable. Catalunya is a tactical event. Guy has been working hard gathering background information and we will also work together as a team to talk about the character of the rally, talk through various strategies and also how to attack each stage. Our target is to maintain third in the championship by the end of the weekend. We know who will be competitive and who to watch, but as Italy proved, these are all young drivers, largely inexperienced and in fairly standard cars - there are so many variables that anything can happen.
Q:
Luca [Pregliasco], Astra Racing has many years experience in Catalunya. What is the most important piece of information you can pass on to Abdo?
Luca Pregliasco:
We have been competing there since before Rally Catalunya became a World Championship event, so we have a lot of experience of the Spanish roads. The most important thing is to identify what information will be most useful for Abdo in his preparations, and in my mind that is of course the dirt on the road as a result of the cars ahead cutting. For a young driver the main challenge is to stay on the road and the dirt in Spain is worse than the weather - you can never prepare enough for the conditions and they will always surprise you. We are much more relaxed about the weather - in fact I am sure Abdo would be even happier if it was raining as it would suit his driving style event more.
Q:
How has the team prepared for this event?
LP:
We competed with Abdo in the Rally of Alba in Italy at the end of March in a similar specification Ford Puma as part of his preparations for this season, but also with Rally Catalunya in mind as Alba's characteristics are similar to Spain, although the roads aren't so wide. It was useful to prepare in this way as the roads were dirty with a lot of gravel which is what Abdo should expect in Spain. He did extremely wellin finishing a close third. We have also done a lot of work on the Puma, including a new engine and gearbox for this event, as we want to give Abdo the best chance and therefore the best car possible. Catalunya was one of the season events we targeted to fight on, so it will be an interesting weekend.
Q:
The Sanremo final result was perhaps not what the team was expecting. Has this affected morale?
LP:
Not at all, we are all buoyant about our chances in Spain. Of course we were disappointed after Sanremo, but there is no point dwelling on the past. Abdo gave a great performance, in particular on the final two stages when he was on slick tyres in the torrential rain, setting amazing times which saw him climb two places to third, based on stage times. It was upsetting to get a 15-minute penalty which pushed them back to seventh. Abdo gave an outstanding performance and I think he deserved third. However we accepted the penalty and we are looking forward to showing that he can repeat his excellent performance for a top position.

 

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