How many times this year has the outcome of a WRC rally only been decided on the Sunday, or even on the very last stage?

There can be no doubt about it: this has been a cracker of a season, packed with drama and down-to-the-wire fights that have so far seen victory go to no fewer than six different drivers and four different makes!

It come as no surprise therefore to see that the result of both the Drivers' and Manufacturers' campaigns will only be known at the end of the final encounter of 2003, Rally GB. For the time being, one thing is certain: Michelin - the long-time motor sport partner of the two carmakers still in contention for the Manufacturers' award - is sure of taking its WRC score to 34 world titles [at least] since the creation of the series in 1973!

This weekend, in championship terms, the men from Clermont-Ferrand will consequently be focused on the fight for the Drivers' trophy, but in no way does that mean they have any intention of neglecting the perfectly legitimate intentions of all their WRC partners to conclude the season on the highest note possible!

The tension at its climax? With the outcome of both championships in the balance this weekend, this season-long tension obviously concerns everyone; and not only by the drivers and teams, but by 'team' Michelin also...

For the French tyre firm, which will be aiming for a possible eleventh title in six years, to be in a position to win any world crown is the fruit of strong partnerships painstakingly built up over the years. And when a season concludes, as it has done this year, with a sequence of four events [more than a quarter of the calendar!] packed into a mere 38 days, the challenge is obviously spiced up further still.

The rigorous testing, development, production and transport of the very latest evolutions of its tyres, combined with the highest possible standard of service and on-event technical assistance for all its WRC partners have been priorities at Michelin since the very beginning. Indeed, they are a fundamental part of the company's very presence in competition.

Accordingly, the anomaly that found its way into its global operation a week ago in Catalonia was taken into account with immediate effect to ensure the continued optimisation of communication of pertinent technical information, simultaneously, to every one of its partners.

On the technical front...

September and October are not November... The switch to a new September date for the 'RAC Rally' from 2004 will solve one of the season's toughest challenges as far as pre-event tyre testing is concerned. Traditionally, in order to enable the production and transport of the latest tyres in time for this highly specific event, pre-Rally GB tests have taken place in September or, exceptionally [as this year] in October.

However, the conditions encountered at the back-end of summer or early autumn are practically never representative of those which competitors face in South Wales in November. More often than not, the tracks that criss-cross the region's forests are desperately dry with no trace of the slippery coating of mud that covers the cold surface [between 2 and 10?C in recent years] when the big day finally comes. There is even a possibility that the ground will be frozen or at least covered by a crust of ice, although this has been rare since the switch to Cardiff as the rally's home...

On-event validation... The above contrast clearly makes rigorous, pertinent testing difficult, while no work has been done on this type of surface in sub-zero temperatures since the number of tyre types teams can nominate was restricted to just two some years ago.

Once again, it's during the event that new products will therefore be validated, although Marcus Gronholm's victory in Wales in 2001, as well as his excellent run in front prior to his retirement twelve months ago, were eloquent illustrations of the effectiveness of the latest evolution Michelin Zs and Michelin ZAs developed for the British round.

Symbolic snow...? Snow and ice have been absent from Rally GB in recent years. But, to mark the end of an era, what if wintry conditions were to be a feature of the final 'RAC' to be organised in November?

If that was the case, it is important to note that the British round is the only event - along with the Monte Carlo Rally and Sweden - that allows the use of specific 'snow' tyres. They may only be fitted however with the authorisation of the Clerk of the Course. Studs, an accessory that characterises the snow tyres used in the French Alps and in the Swedish W?rmland, are not permitted.

75km without service... The Rally GB organisers have innovated this year with the inclusion of a loop of two stages totalling more than 75 kilometres. This loop, that crews face on the very first full day of action, uses known roads which, run separately, and in the sort of conditions generally associated with this event [mud, cold temperatures], do not pose a particular problem in terms of tyre wear.

But how will it be with the same tests run back to back over such a long distance, especially if conditions prove as dry as they were during testing in October? In readiness for such a configuration, Michelin has included a specific compound in its 'RAC' load.

Re-cutting for enhanced clearance... The sea-to-land ratio - ratio between the surface area of the tread blocks and the grooves - of a product such as the Michelin Z is around 40 per cent. However, in order to adapt their tyres to the conditions of the moment, drivers do not hesitate to have them re-cut. The precise nature of these 'cuts' depends on individual driving styles and advice from Michelin's on-event technicians.

This work extends from a simple incision [e.g. on the inside tread blocks only] to a more complicated 'cut' [e.g. opening up of the central blocks]. When the going gets muddy, Michelin's technicians may even recommend the addition of an extra circumferential groove. Between the standard pattern and this extreme example, the clearance capacity of the same tyre can be increased by more than 9 per cent.

2003 Rally GB in brief...

Rally Headquarters: Cardiff and Felindre [Swansea].Total distance: 1574.52km.Total stage length: 376.81km.Longest stage: 43.09km [SS5/14, Resolfen].Longest group of stages: 75.67 km (SS4/5).Surface type: Gravel.Number of stages: 18.Number of tyre changes (groups of stages): 11.

It may not please the classicists, but this is the final time that Rally GB will conclude the season. Instead, from 2004, Britain's WRC round will switch to a new, mid-September slot, a change that is likely to see many of the event's traditional ingredients disappear for good.

Clearly, the organisers didn't want break with such a longstanding tradition without marking the occasion. For while little of the 2003 route is new in comparison with recent years, Leg 1 features the awesome menu of 164km of against-the-clock action, including the longest 'loop' of the entire championship: 75.67km divided into just two stages. If conditions live up to the legend, it's an experience competitors aren't likely to forget in a long, long time, especially the younger ones!

One of these stages, Resolfen (43.09km, the longest of the weekend), will be repeated on the Saturday, but this time on its own.

Other features of this year's format are the inclusion of two 'remote' re-group controls and the deployment of significant means aimed at broadcasting the weekend's final stage live on TV. If the title fights go all the way down to the wire, that's certainly not a programme fans will want to miss!

Finally, the first of the weekend's three attempts at the Cardiff super-special will kick off the action on Thursday evening.



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