After a five-week break from competition, the World Rally Championship returns to action in Spain this week for the first of two Mediterranean asphalt events on consecutive weekends.

The Rally de Espaaa is the twelfth round in this year's 15-rally championship and it returns for a fourth time to Salou, on the Costa Daurada coast, south-west of Barcelona.

The sweeping roads of the Tarragona region are fast and flowing and can be compared to a race circuit in their characteristics. The asphalt is smooth but often abrasive, and can quickly become slippery as drivers cut across the open corners to shave tenths of a second from their special stage times and drag stones and dirt onto the surface.

The roads will become especially slippery for the second pass of stages in the afternoon after the whole entry has already tackled the morning speed tests. It places huge importance on the work of drivers' safety crews, who pass through the stages ahead of competitors. They note sections of road where conditions have changed and relay the information to co-drivers who modify their pace notes accordingly before starting the tests.

Special notes:

Rally Catalunya is often said to be the closest the WRC gets to a circuit race, owing to its smooth and flowing asphalt surface. Most of the rally route has been resurfaced over the years making the roads clean and grippy, in contrast to the dirty asphalt of the last sealed surface event in Germany in mid-August.

The rally itself is based in Europe's largest theme park, PortAventura, in the holiday destination of Salou, which lies 110 kilometres south-west of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast.

Rally Catalunya is scheduled in the region's spring season, and whilst generally pleasant and popular with holidaymakers and rally fans alike, the weather can be notoriously changeable.

Temperatures are expected to rest between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius, but rain can soon form as clouds crest the surrounding mountains of the Tarragona region and the inclement weather builds. On the smooth roads, sudden storms can easily flood the surrounding drainage systems and make grip levels very treacherous.

The organisers have made some small changes to the stages since last year, with the inclusion of two brand new speed tests on Saturday.

A total of 18 stages, including the renowned El Montmeil and La Serra d'Almos sections from previous years, take crews through 353.62 kilometres of competition after a ceremonial start on Thursday night that, typical of the destination, is just metres from the ocean.

FIA World Rally Championship news:

Sebastien Loeb extended his lead in the race for the 2008 drivers' title to eight points following his win in New Zealand at the end of August. Now classified with 86 points to the 78 notched up by Mikko Hirvonen, it is looking increasingly difficult for the Finn to stop Seb from taking a record fifth crown.

In the Manufacturers' Championship, the Citroen Total WRT enjoys a 20-point cushion over BP Ford Abu Dhabi.

News from the Manufacturers' teams:

Citroen Total WRT:

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

Sebastien Loeb:

"A top result in Spain would do our chances a world of good in both championships. But our rivals are aware of that, too, so they will have no intention of making life easy for us. That said, this is a rally I really like and I will try to make the most of this opportunity to pull further clear at the top of the Drivers' standings. It's a high-speed event and I enjoy the circuit type driving style the stages call for. There's no other rally like it in the championship and it's been particularly successful for us in recent years, while the C4 WRC was extremely competitive in Catalonia in 2007. Since then, we have sought to fine-tune its handling and balance, especially with a view to optimising its set-up to match our Pirelli tyres. Also, as we saw in 2007 at the end of last year's first leg, the changeable weather is a factor we can't afford to ignore, as is the fact that our tyres will not be equipped with a run-flat system."

Dani Sordo:

"It's not necessarily my favourite event, but it's our home rally! More than anywhere else, people will be watching closely to see how we perform, but we will be able to count on plenty of support, too. We will be in front of home fans and our friends will be out on the stages, so that puts us under a little extra pressure, but it's also added motivation! Last year on this event, I found myself in the lead of a WRC round for the very first time. It was a very pleasant feeling which I have experienced again since. This time round, we will probably have to adapt the way we drive and cut the corners less because our Pirelli tyres won't be equipped with mousse. However, that won't change my objective which is to continue the recent successful streak we've enjoyed since Finland, and also try to score valuable points for Citro?n and ourselves."

BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT:

[Mikko Hirvonen, car #3 and Francois Duval, car #4 and Khalid Al Qassimi, car #14]

Mikko Hirvonen:

"The rally seems to be faster and faster each year. The stages are smooth and the organisers seem to improve the roads every time we come. It's like driving on a race track and it's crucial to find the correct braking point and the right line through bends. We're second in both the manufacturers' and drivers' points so I need to try to beat S?bastien Loeb. That's going to be very difficult and there's no room for mistakes, everything has to be perfect. This is the first time here with Pirelli's new asphalt tyres so I will try to be very precise with my pace notes during the recce. I need to make sure that if I note a corner that can be cut, there is nothing on the verge that can break the tyre. Last year organisers placed barrels and bales on the inside of some corners to prevent drivers taking so many big cuts."

Francois Duval:

"This isn't my favourite asphalt rally because the roads are fast and wide. I prefer stages that are narrow and tight. But that doesn't alter my plan which is to try to take a podium. The 2008-specification Focus RS WRC is a big improvement over the 2007 version which I drove on asphalt earlier in the season, and if I can match the pace of Dani Sordo then I should be around the top three. I would prefer dry conditions because I don't have any real experience of the 2008 car with Pirelli tyres in the wet. I was hoping for some rain in Spain during the test. The first couple of hours on the opening day were, damp which helped, but I still haven't driven the car in heavy rain."

Khalid Al Qassimi:

"I'm going to devise completely new pace notes because I'm now a year in to my WRC career and I feel I can push a little harder on asphalt. My new notes will be more accurate and allow me to go for more pace. This will be my sixth asphalt event in just over a year but I'm still learning. Before I was just happy to be driving and competing, now I'm trying to get more pace out of the car. I'll focus on setting-up the car and then review my first day performance. If I feel I'm heading in the right direction, then I'll start lifting my pace."

Subaru WRT:

[Petter Solberg, car #5 and Chris Atkinson, car #6 and Brice Tirabassi, car #15]

Petter Solberg:

"I've been preparing myself to the maximum since New Zealand, and I hope we can build on what we had in Germany. I really had good fun driving there, so I definitely hope we can have even more fun in Spain. It won't be easy, but it's a rally I like and the route is fun to drive anyway. Spain is a very different rally to Germany with very different roads, a lot cleaner and more flowing, but if you can drive, you can drive, so it's not that big a change. We're always driving flat out anyway, so you don't do much different inside the car. It'll be an important rally though as it'll go a long way to deciding the result in Corsica the week after."

Chris Atkinson:

"Spain is a very different event to Germany, where we were last on tarmac. The roads are wide, smooth and high-grip, and you can carry a lot of corner speed because of this. It's about the highest lateral load we get all season, and whilst it doesn't really affect us because we train for it, you notice it for sure inside the car. Because it's smooth it gets very slippery when it rains as the water doesn't run away, but when you get a series of corners right, it's a great feeling."

Brice Tirabassi:

"I am very happy to be taking part in these two events with a team of this level. I don't have much experience of driving a WRC car, but I know both events quite well so I am looking forward to getting going. I like Spain, so I hope this means I can focus more easily on learning the team and the car. My objective in Spain is to understand the car better and find the limit, and carry all this into Corsica the week after."

For more see Part 2 of our preview for the Rally Catalunya.



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