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."

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally team:

[Matthew Wilson, car #7 and Jari-Matti Latvala, car #8]

Matthew Wilson:

"It will be nice to go back to a consistent tarmac event in Spain and hopefully things will stay dry for us. I prefer the nature of these stages to Germany as the roads are consistent over all three days whereas Germany there was a lot of variation. Being with Rob [Wilson] last week should be good preparation for the event. We are back scoring points for the Stobart team and I am sporting my lucky number 7 so looking forward to starting the event. The weather again will play a big part and if it is consistent and we can get off to a positive start during the shakedown, I think a points' finish is certainly on the cards."

Jari-Matti Latvala:

"The WRC season started on tarmac and on a new tyre and my confidence was not perfect and in Germany I felt the pressure after my accident in Finland but now I actually feel quite relaxed. I have done five hours of asphalt training recently with one of Finland's top touring car drivers on a race track and there are quite a few things I have learnt, especially with my braking, which I know I can use on the next two tarmac rallies. I did the same training 12 months ago only this time I feel like I have taken a lot more from it. I have also been doing some drive days for Ford in a Fiesta and a Focus ST and OK they are not rally cars but I was able to practice what I learnt from the touring car which is more time and practice for me. I'm looking forward to Spain and Corsica because I like these rallies and now I will have had more time with the Pirelli PZero tyre so I will be more familiar with its actions."

Munchi's Ford WRT:

[Federico Villagra, car #9 and Henning Solberg, car #10]

Federico Villagra:

"I have been rallying almost every week in Argentina but not so much on tarmac except for a little bit we did in a group N car but other than that it has been pretty limited. Being here for a second time will help but this is still only my second time ever on tarmac in the WRC so we will try and find a nice pace from the start and gradually build on it. My goal for this rally will be to finish in the top-eight and collect some more drivers' points. The test on Monday will hopefully give me a better understanding of how the 07 Focus reacts on asphalt and also an idea of how the Pirelli tyre will feel as this will be my first time using the tarmac version of the rubber. The Munchi's team is currently fighting with Suzuki for fifth place in the championship and I think we have a strong chance to extend our gap in Spain especially with Henning joining the team again."

Henning Solberg:

"I am looking forward to the rally in Spain because I have been working a lot on learning about driving on tarmac. OK, asphalt is still not a very strong part of my driving but after finishing seventh in Germany I would like to think we can score some more points in Spain. I have been spending a lot of time at home in Norway at the go-kart track with my own kart and this has been helping with my feeling on tarmac. My plan will again be to take things at a steady pace to start with and drive our own rally and hopefully the speed will increase as the rally goes on. A top-eight finish here would be perfect for me and for the Munchi's team who are in a good fight with Suzuki."

Suzuki WRT:

[Toni Gardemeister, car #11 and Per-Gunnar Andersson, car #12]

Toni Gardemeister:

"I've not driven the Catalunya Rally since 2005, so I don't really know what to expect. It's an event that I like, but it's not always liked me in the past! For some reason we've often had little problems on this rally that have prevented us from getting a good result. It won't be easy because we have many opponents, but if we have a good level of reliability I think that we can score points."

P-G Andersson:

"I still don't have a lot of experience on asphalt but I think we can have a good run in Spain. There are a number of things to look out for on this rally, in particular the way to cut the corners. If you cut the corners too deeply you can damage the car but if you do not cut them enough then your stage time will be slow. We've got some small improvements on the SX4 WRC for this event including some new differential settings, which should make it easier to drive."

Junior WRC:

Round 6.

In the FIA Junior World Rally Championship all the regular crews have nominated this event and Sebastien Ogier could clinch the title on Sunday.

Ogier took his third J-WRC win of the season last time out in Germany and now heads to Spain with a nine-point cushion over Shaun Gallagher. While Gallagher is not really a threat - as he will miss the final Junior event in Corsica next weekend as it is not one of his nominated rounds - Aaron Burkart and Michal Kosciuszko could both make Ogier wait, as they are only ten and twelve points adrift respectively.

Whatever happens, the FFSA-backed man will definitely start as the favourite in his Citroen C2 S1600 and a win would guarantee him the crown regardless of how his competitors perform.

"This event could well mark an important milestone in my career," he noted. "I'm going to try everything possible to finish in front of Aaron Burkart and Michal Kosciuszko, who are my key championship rivals. A win would allow me to claim the title before the final round in Corsica, so there is a lot of pressure on my shoulders.

"These stages will be all new to me, as I have only ever been to the Catalunya Rally as a spectator, but competing on the Corte Rally in Corsica two weeks ago definitely helped to refine my asphalt technique."

Michal Kosciuszko meanwhile reckons a finish will be essential if he is to 'maximise' his chances in the J-WRC. Kosciuszko is currently fourth in the race for the Junior World Rally Championship crown and while he will need a miracle to beat Ogier - who is 12 points in front - the Polish star has a good opportunity to grab the runners-up spot.

Indeed with Aaron Burkart only two points in front - and Shaun Gallagher three ahead, it is all to play for.

"Catalunya is one of the rallies that I know quite well as I have done it for the last two years," said the Suzuki Sport Europe man. "Although last year we unfortunately had to retire after an accident, the year before we finished fifth with an Ignis.

"We will have to keep a close eye on the championship situation now, which is interesting and although we are fourth, we are only three points off second place. Above all we need to finish in Spain in order to maximise our chances on the final round in Corsica."

Burkart concurs that a good finish will be critical and he is determined to try and finish in front of Kosciuszko's Swift in his C2 S1600.

"I really like the Catalunya Rally," added the German. "The stages are quick, the lines are clean, and we get a great deal of grip out of the cars on the stages. My objective for this penultimate round of the season will be to be quicker than Kosciuszko. So I need to get a good result here to be sure of being in a strong championship position before Corsica."

Gallagher meanwhile is in a slightly different position, as while he is currently in front of Burkart and Kosciuszko, he opted not to nominate France at the start of the year and thus Spain is his last chance to add to his tally.

"I'm hoping for a strong result in what will be my final Junior round, as Corsica is not on my programme this year," he explained. "This means that Spain is my last chance to be sure of a good place in the final Junior World Rally Championship classification.

"I need to score as many points as possible - preferably by finishing in the top three - to keep my podium place at the end of the year. Whatever happens, this has been an extremely useful season for both me and my team. The performance of my Citroen C2 Super 1600 has allowed me to step up a gear, and I want to finish 2008 on a positive note in Spain."

Other significant entries:

79 crews set to start.

79 crews are due to start the Rally RACC Catalunya Costa Daurada - with 27 in World Rally Cars, the highest number to date this year for a single of the World Rally Championship.

In addition to the usual 'works' entries there will be another 13 runners in privately entered WRC cars, including Andreas Mikkelsen, Mads Ostberg and 2008 Irish Tarmac champion, Eamonn Boland.

Of the rest as well as the 18 crews in the J-WRC, another 34 will also take in the round too - 17 will battle it out for the N4 win, including P-WRC front runner, Juho Hanninen, while 10 have opted to enter the Spanish round under the N3 class and seven will run in Group A (four in A7 and three in A6).

Route:

The structure is broadly the same as in 2007, although organisers have introduced two new stages and changed several more. The rally is again based at Salou's PortAventura theme park and all but one of the stages are in the Tarragona region, an hour's drive from Barcelona.

Each day comprises two passes over a different loop of three stages. After Thursday evening's start ceremony on the seafront, Friday's opening leg is the longest of the rally with 131.76km of competition. Saturday's second day north-west of Salou includes two new tests and the monster 38.27km El Priorat - La Ribera d'Ebre, the longest of the event. The final leg west of the town uses three stages unchanged from last year before the finish in Salou at 15.07. The 18 stages cover 353.62km in a route of 1313.99km.

Last year:

Sebastien Loeb took his third win in a row last year in Spain last year, beating his team-mate, Dani Sordo by 13.8 seconds.

Marcus Gronholm took the final spot on the rostrum, while Mikko Hirvonen and Francois Duval came in fourth and fifth. Petter Solberg, Jari-Matti Latvala and Chris Atkinson rounded out the points' scorers with Xavier Pons ninth and Henning Solberg tenth.

Manfred Stohl and Luis-Perez Companc were the two big retirements, both crashing out on day 1.

 

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