Preview: Acropolis Rally of Greece.

Every round of the FIA World Rally Championship presents a tough challenge, however this weekend's Acropolis Rally of Greece is one of the most difficult of them all.

Since the Safari Rally left the WRC calendar, Greece's round has assumed the mantle of 'the toughest rally'.

BP Ford`s Marcus Gronholm and co-driver, Timo Rautiainen celebrate their Acropolis Rally win
BP Ford`s Marcus Gronholm and co-driver, Timo Rautiainen celebrate their…

Every round of the FIA World Rally Championship presents a tough challenge, however this weekend's Acropolis Rally of Greece is one of the most difficult of them all.

Since the Safari Rally left the WRC calendar, Greece's round has assumed the mantle of 'the toughest rally'.

Durability is often just as important as outright performance. The ambient temperature - which can get as high as 40 degrees Celsius - puts driver fitness at a premium, while the rough conditions of the mountain roads are demanding on the machinery and the crews.

The dust thrown up by other competing cars and rocks on the racing line are among the potential hazards, so the teams have to pay particular attention to under-car protection and engine cooling.

The risk of punctures on sharp rocks is also a major factor, and BFGoodrich will offer a super-tough tyre compound, introduced for the first time on the previous event in Sardinia, to suit the anticipated conditions.

Furthermore with a nine-week break in the WRC year after this event, all of the drivers' and teams' heading to the Mediterranean will be keen to end the first half of the season on a high.

Special notes:

The Acropolis is one of the legendary events on the WRC calendar, albeit one that has experienced some major changes in a history that stretches back to the start of the World Rally Championship itself.

In 2005 there was a major change in the event's format. The rally had been based in central Greece, around the town of Lamia, 200km north of Athens, but two years ago it shifted its base to the Athens Olympic Stadium complex.

The move meant the rally organisers could incorporate some new special stages into the route, using some roads in the hills to the north and west of Greece's capital city.

For 2007 the base of the rally has moved once again - this time to the Olympic Equestrian Centre in Markopoulo, 30km south of Athens - but some of last year's special stages remain, mixed with a selection of roads that are new to the drivers.

One stage, Agii Theodori, measures a monstrous 48.88km and uses a combination of familiar sections and unknown roads. It is the longest special stage used so far this year, eclipsing the 46.02km St Pierreville - Antraigues test used on Rallye Monte Carlo.

The Olympic Equestrian Centre - which hosted the horse racing and horseback riding contests during the 2004 Olympic Games - will play host to the rally headquarters, the service park, and the ceremonial start and finish. Within the horse racing track a 3.3km gravel Super Special Stage has been designed. This stage, which will open the rally at 1900hrs on Thursday 31 May and close it at 1430hrs on Sunday 3 June, has a mirror-image layout and the two-driver, head-to-head format will whip the passionate Greek rally fans into a frenzy.

The scheduled SS9/20, Imittos, has been cancelled at late notice and so 21 of the planned 23 special stages will now be run. The organisers have altered the route accordingly and the competitive distance for the rally is 334.44km. The crews will also tackle 1237.89km of road driving, meaning the overall event distance is 1572.33km.

FIA World Rally Championship news:

Marcus Gronholm re-took the lead in the 2007 FIA World Rally drivers' championship following his win on the Rally d'Italia Sardegna two weeks ago. Gronholm is now seven points up on Sebastien Loeb, who failed to score after his error in SS13. Mikko Hirvonen lies third, 4 points behind the Frenchman.

In the Manufacturers' championship there was no change at the top - although the BP Ford WRT did increase its lead quite substantially over Citroen, from 9 points to 21 points. The Stobart M-Sport RT meanwhile consolidated third, now 3 points up on Subaru.

The big news following the event in Sardinia concerned OMV Kronos Citroen's Daniel Carlsson, who has been reprimanded by the FIA after he withdrew before the start of SS1 due to budgetary problems.

The Swede has been banned from taking in any more events this season, while OMV Kronos now need to find a new driver to partner Manfred Stohl on six or seven of the remaining events this year.

Under the rules all Manufacturer Teams must take in ten events with two cars and thus far OMV Kronos have only done it with four - assuming Sardinia is counted.

News from the Manufacturers' teams:

Citroen Total WRT:

[Sebastien Loeb, car #1 and Daniel Sordo, car #2]

Citroen team boss, Guy Frequelin has admitted that they cannot target anything other than victory on the Acropolis given their situation in the manufacturers' and drivers' championships.

Sebastien Loeb's off in Sardinia recently has put the French manufacturer on the back-foot and Seb now trails Marcus Gronholm by seven points in the race for the drivers' title. The situation in the manufacturers' however is more depressing for Frequelin and Citroen currently lies 21 points behind Ford.

"Given our positions in both championships, we cannot target anything less than victory in Greece," Frequelin confirmed. "Our disappointment in Sardinia demonstrated that even the best of them are not immune from trouble, and our rivals too are just as prone to this sort of misadventure. It will be up to us to tackle the Acropolis in such a way that we don't compromise our title chances before going into the second half of the season."

Greece has rarely been a good event for Citroen though and they have only come out top once in five starts, when Loeb triumphed in 2005.

"Perhaps this year's visit will enable us to improve on that statistic," Frequelin added. "In recent years, we have no doubt been less well prepared for this type of terrain than for the others. I hope the Citroen C4 WRC will enable us to reverse the trend. Luck can also play a big role in Greece, so let's hope it will be on our side this time."

Sebastien Loeb meanwhile will be eager to bounce back and he has insisted that his Sardinia off was just one of those things and that it is no point looking back. Indeed the error does have one upside for the Frenchman as it means he will have a fresh engine and chassis for this round. He will also benefit as he won't have to start first on the road.

"Rally driving is not an exact science and we are forever on a knife-edge. At times there isn't a big difference between staying on the road and going off. What's really frustrating is that I wasn't even pushing when I made my mistake. But it happened, so we've just got to put it behind us and look forward," he stated.

"Neither championship has been lost though and the Acropolis is only the halfway point of the season. We will still have eight rallies to make up ground after the break."

BP Ford WRT:

[Marcus Gronholm, car #3 and Mikko Hirvonen, car #4.]

Marcus Gronholm heads to the Acropolis determined to try and build on his seven point lead in the drivers' championship. Gronholm took his second win of the season in Sardinia recently and that result, combined with Sebastien Loeb's retirement, has put him right back in contention for his third world title and the Finn is keen to try and capitalise on this.

"Victory in Italy put me back into the lead of the championship. The next two rallies now give me the opportunity to build on that lead. The Acropolis is traditionally a strong event for Ford while the first event after the summer break in Finland is my home event so I really want to capitalise on those," he confirmed.

Gronholm has competed on the Acropolis eight times in his career and won the event last year. Furthermore while the event has a fearsome reputation and is tough on both man and machine, due to the high temperatures, it may be muddy in places this year due to recent rain.

Indeed Ford's four-day pre-event test near Livadia in central Greece was disrupted by storms and while Gronholm and team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen were due to do two days each, in the end they ended up just doing one. Gronholm was happy though with the changes made to the suspension and engine response.

Asked about the Acropolis, he conceded it is far from easy: "It's a hard event for both drivers and cars. The weather during our test last week was cold, muddy and wet. It is forecast to turn warmer and drier in time for the rally but in the shaded areas where the surface is often clay-based, mud patches may remain. That will be strange for Greece," he continued. "My confidence is good however - and I really want to take the fight to [Sebastien] Loeb as I did in Italy."

Hirvonen meanwhile is confident that the Focus RS WRC06 will be able to take strain on the Acropolis. Indeed the M-Sport-run operation has won the Acropolis five times in the last seven years and that bodes well for him and Gronholm.

"Last year's Acropolis was incredibly rough so I have to be prepared for that again," said Mikko, who was third on the event last year. "The stages were rocky and rutted and if they are in the same condition this year, then my car will take plenty of punishment. The obvious option is to ease off during the roughest sections but the pace of rallies now is so high that a driver can't afford to do that. You have to drive flat out everywhere. But the Focus is a strong car so I don't have any worries."

OMV Kronos Citroen WRT:

[Manfred Stohl, car #5].

OMV Kronos Citroen's Manfred Stohl is feeling confident ahead of the Acropolis Rally and following a positive outing in Sardinia he is keen to try and 'reap the rewards' in Greece.

Stohl felt that they made a good 'step forward' on the Rally d'Italia Sardegna and after bringing his Kronos-run Citroen Xsara WRC home seventh he will be after another points haul come the finish of this event on Sunday.

"The OMV Kronos Citroen World Rally Team has done a great job during the last few weeks," said the Austrian. "Now we want to reap the rewards in Greece.

"But you can't compare this rally to any other in the WRC calendar. Here you are fighting the heat - and there is a constant danger of tyre damage too from the first stage to the last."

Furthermore while the Acropolis is tough and Stohl didn't do very well on this event last year, he remains upbeat. Indeed he set some good times in 2005 and was sixth in 2004.

"Every driver wants to get a top result before the summer break," he continued. "We have already had some quite good results in Greece - and also with the Xsara.

"In 2005 we reached several third-best special stage times overall on the second day. I am sure that we will be able to keep up this time, as well, even though the Ford WRC cars are definitely still advantaged here - and, after all, eight crews of this manufacturer will compete here."

For the record, Stohl will be the only driver competing under the OMV Kronos Citroen World Rally Team banner in Greece after Daniel Carlsson was reprimanded by the FIA and banned from competing in any more events this season following his actions in Sardinia.

Subaru WRT:

[Petter Solberg, car #7 and Chris Atkinson, car #8.]

Petter Solberg has admitted that he will be hoping for a change of luck on the Acropolis. Petter managed to finish fifth in Sardinia and while he showed good pace early on he struggled to maintain that as the event wore on.

The Norwegian conducted a two-day test deep in the countryside of mid-Wales, on Wednesday and Thursday last week and is optimistic that will help him go better in Greece.

"We've been working hard to develop the car in Wales, so hopefully we'll see an improvement when we get to Greece this weekend," he noted. "I think we also need a change of luck!

"Of course this event has always been difficult with the weather and rough tracks, although the new stages might be slightly less demanding on the car. We will know when we do the recce, but to be honest I don't care if the stages are tougher or easier, I will always try my best."

Chris Atkinson meanwhile has warned that this event will be very tough. The Aussie has only done the Acropolis twice thus far and while he managed his first finish on the event in 2006, when he was eleventh, he will be hoping for a lot better this time out.

Chris had to settle for a tenth place finish in Sardinia two weeks ago after he hit a rock on day one and had to retire from the first leg. Although he re-started under the SupeRally and eventually finished tenth, to secure the final manufacturers' point for Subaru, he knows that rocks could potentially be an even bigger problem in Greece.

"It's hard to make a prediction but there were moments in Sardinia when we were right where we wanted to be," he stated. "Our pace on the opening morning was promising and right now we're trying to ensure we can attack like that all the way through the Acropolis Rally.

"We already know it's going to be one of the toughest events of the year. The rally throws up so many variables and you've got to stay sharp from start to finish."

Stobart M-Sport Ford Rally team:

[Jari-Matti Latvala, car #9 and Henning Solberg, car #10]

After taking the early lead on the Rally d'Italia Sardegna two weeks ago, Jari-Matti Latvala could be one to watch on the Acropolis. The Finn looked well set to get a top result in Sardinia until he hit a rock on the second loop on day one and had to retire from the leg.

Although he re-started and managed to finish ninth to score two manufacturers' points, his early form surprised many. Now he will need to build on that and this will be his fourth appearance on the Greek event.

"I'm really looking forward to the next rally in Greece and once again we have a good starting position for the first day. After leading my first ever rally in Sardinia the feeling with the car is really good and I feel confident on this surface now," he noted. "We know that the car is strong, fast and reliable; this is really important as it is one less thing for me to worry about.

"I have experience of this event from last year when I was competing in the Production WRC and my times were quite good even though I was competing with a bandage on my arm from an earlier accident. I finished Sardinia on a high with top times and I would like to carry this on into Greece and get some more points."

Henning Solberg should also do well and he is feeling 'really excited' ahead of the event, especially as he believes he is finally getting the car just how he wants it.

"The last rally was a big step forward for me, it was one of my best-ever events, and the feeling with the car is now the best I have had," he stated. "The final day's stages in Sardinia had a similar surface to what we will see in Greece and the car felt great on that type of road; I even set two fastest times on the last day so it was all really working well for me.

"I have competed in Greece a few times before and know that it is a very difficult event, and tough on the car, but I intend to push quite hard. I need to build on the improvements we made in Sardinia now. The car and my driving have improved - and I'm really excited about this rally."

Matthew Wilson will as normal drive the 'third' car.

Munchi's Ford WRT:

[Luis-Perez Companc, car #11 and Federico Villagra, car #12]

Luis Perez Companc has said that he will be aiming for a trouble-free run on the Acropolis to try and capitalise on the traditionally high attrition rate and score the first points for the Munchi's Ford squad.

Companc hasn't had much luck so far this season in his four WRC events to date and he was forced out of the recent event in Sardinia when he hit a large rock and suffered quite a heavy off.

That impact injured his regular co-driver, Jose Volta and as such he will co-driven by Jose Diaz this weekend.

Each gravel event has brought more confidence to the 35-year-old though and he remains confident: "The last few events have not been very kind to me and we have had small problems that have ended our rallies early. My first time in Greece will be very difficult but I will be concentrating hard and aiming to have a clean run," he explained, "there is a high rate of attrition and hopefully we can be there at the end to pick up some points."

Asked about the event in more detail and Luis-Perez added that the reconnaissance will be especially significant for him, considering this is his debut on the event.

"The recce will be important and we will gather as much information as possible about where we can push and where we need to be careful of the surface and not make any mistakes," he added. "The car is strong and, even though we didn't complete many stages in Argentina and Sardinia, it still felt positive on the gravel surface; I think we should have a good chance for Greece."

As for Federico Villagra's form last time out, his first outing under the Munchi's banner, Companc admitted that he was impressed, especially as Federico had never driven a WRC car before.

"Federico performed well and did a good job for the team [in Sardinia]. I think he will improve as the season goes on and he gets to grips with the Focus RS WRC. I'm hoping this rally will be a good team effort from us all," Luis-Perez summed-up.

Production Car WRC:

The Acropolis Rally of Greece is the fourth round in the FIA Production Car Rally Championship.

21 of the 23 drivers' in contention for the PWRC have nominated this round - what will be the best turn out of the year on a single event in terms of the most PWRC runners.

The two PWRC entrants missing from this event are: 2006 PWRC runner-up, Fumio Nutahara and Stepan Vojtech, who is entered under the OMV Bixxol Rally Team CZ banner.

Toshi Arai currently leads the way in the Production Car World Rally Championship with 19 points, while Kristian Sohlberg has 12, 7 points behind. Oscar Svedlund, Mark Higgins and Federico Villagra are all tied for third with 10 points, each having won one round apiece, in Sweden, Mexico and Argentina respectively.

Arai, Sohlberg and Higgins will start as favourites, but a number of other runners could also be in contention, including reigning PWRC champion, Nasser Al-Attiyah, 2004 PWRC champion, Niall McShea, Juho Hanninen and Gabriel Pozzo.

Britain's Stuart Jones will be out to gain further experience in his third PWRC event, while Red Bull's Andreas Aigner will want to build on his first PWRC points' finish of the season in Argentina.

Other significant entries:

Around 72 crews are due to start the Acropolis Rally, with 21 in World Rally Cars.

In addition to those competing with 'Manufacturer' or 'Manufacturer Teams', Toni Gardemeister and JRC regular, Urmo Aava will both use Mitsubishi Lancer WRC05's, while Jan Kopecky and Francois Duval will fly the flag for Skoda.

Mads Ostberg will also be in action in an Adapta-run Subaru Impreza WRC and Guy Wilks will be back in his 2005 spec Ford Focus WRC, after his last outing in Portugal.

Other than that, in addition to the 21 drivers' competing in the Production Car WRC category, another 16 drivers' will be competing in N4 / Group N cars, most noticeably Martin Prokop, who is a regular in the JRC with Citroen.


The route is broadly similar to 2006 with the base again in Athens. However, as the Olympic Stadium was unavailable due to the Champions League soccer final, the Olympic Equestrian Centre at Markopoulo is the new base. It is home to the service park and three runs over a purpose-built 3.20km super special stage on Thursday and Saturday evenings and Sunday lunchtime.

The opening leg heads north-west of the city, much of it on roads familiar from last year, and also includes a short test on the very edge of the service park. The second leg is the longest of the event. It heads west of Athens for a mix of old and new tests and includes two 15-minute remote service points in Loutraki.

The final day is again based to the north-west of Athens before the finish at Markopoulo after the super special stage. Drivers tackle 21 tests covering 334.44km in a route of 1572.33km.

Last year:

Marcus Gronholm won the event in 2006, 2mins 26secs up on Sebastien Loeb. Mikko Hirvonen took the final place on the podium to give Ford a 1-3, while Toni Gardemeister, Henning Solberg and Daniel Sordo rounded out the top six.

A number of drivers' had problems during the event - including Subaru duo Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson and Skoda privateer, Jan Kopecky. All three managed to finish though thanks to the SupeRally - 7th, 11th and 16th respectively.

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