The Intercontinental Rally Challenge will embrace a new concept with this weekend's Rally Internacional de Curitiba, which gets underway in Brazil on Friday, as the event will be held at the same venue as the opening round of the FIA World Touring Car Championship.

The rally runs around the city of Curitiba, to the south of Rio de Janeiro, with the service park based in the Curitiba International circuit, alongside the FIA World Touring Car Championship paddock. The special stages get underway on Friday morning and finish on Saturday lunchtime, just before qualifying for the World Touring Car races. With this innovative timetable, rallying and racing has come together in a way that has not yet been seen before. A number of activities are scheduled to take place before the rally that will see the racing drivers get close to their rallying counterparts and vice versa.

For the majority of the regular drivers, however, the Rally Internacional de Curitiba will also be a brand new event, marking the IRC's first gravel round of the season and the first time that the series has visited South America. The roads contain a wide mixture of fast and flowing gravel stages, which will allow every crew to exploit the capabilities of their cars to the maximum. However, there are a number of traps to catch out the unwary, giving the local drivers a distinct advantage in terms of experience.

The weather in Brazil is another factor that is sure to play a part. At this time of year, weather conditions around Curitiba are expected to be uncertain, and rain has been forecast along with warm temperatures. This makes tyre choice a vital element of success, and with no previously established data to go on, crews will have to rely on both accurate information and a little bit of luck.

The Rally Internacional de Curitiba will see just five of the IRC's regular stars battle it out against a strong contingent of local drivers, who both know the terrain well and are strongly poised to spring a surprise.

A total of 35 cars are scheduled to take the start, with the Peugeot UK 207 S2000 of Kris Meeke the first away. After setting a fastest stage time on the opening round of this year's IRC series in Monte Carlo, Meeke proved himself to be capable of fighting for the podium until his impressive progress was halted by a big accident. As a result, the Irishman will have a different Peugeot prepared for him by Kronos Racing, and one with a winning pedigree as it is the same car that Sebastien Ogier used to win the Monte Carlo Rally in January and Juho Hanninen used to triumph in Russia last year.

"What happened in Monte Carlo, when I went off the road, was just down to my inexperience of these conditions," Meeke insisted, "Brazil is going to be a level playing field and I'm sure we can get back on track there.

"I'm very excited by both this rally and the whole IRC in general. It really hands drivers such as me a fantastic opportunity, and I'm absolutely delighted to be here. Nobody has any particular advantage in terms of experience here, so I think that will help me."

Two more Peugeots will be entered by Peugeot Belgium for reigning IRC champion Nicolas Vouilloz and last year's runner-up, Freddy Loix. With Vouilloz failing to score in Monte Carlo following an off-road excursion, the Frenchman will be out to redress the balance in Brazil. Loix, who finished second in Monte Carlo, has stated, by contrast, that he will not be going all-out to take a win at any cost, as he can afford a certain safety margin.

"This kind of rally suits my driving style because the stages are quite fast with some crests and that's what I like," Loix pointed out, "I can see the rally being a bit like a sprint because the stages are quite short, but my target will be to take it steady. There are five Super 2000 cars competing and it's important to be in one of the top places at the finish.

"I want to show that I can be quick, but my last gravel event was in Russia last July, where I finished fourth. Because I have not driven on gravel for a very long time, it will take me some time to find a good rhythm and it's important not to take too many risks."

The Abarth factory team will be represented by Giandomenico Basso and Anton Alen, both driving the Grande Punto S2000 The event is brand new to both drivers but, 30 years ago, Markku Alen - Anton's famous father - contested and won the very first Rally do Brasil with a Fiat 131 Mirafiori. That event marked the last time that Fiat entered a rally in Brazil as a factory team, so some history will be recreated in Curitiba this weekend and both Abarth drivers are looking forward to the challenge, if only to reclaim the initiative in the manufacturers' championship.

"There's a little bit of family history here as my dad won the rally back in 1979 - before I was even born!" Anton Alen remarked, "But, as for me, I'm not really so sure what to expect. I hear that it is a very nice gravel rally, with some quite quick places so, hopefully, it should suit us well. We've done some testing in Italy and I think the car is in good shape, so I'm aiming for a good result here. We had a bit of a disappointing start to the season in Monaco, so we need to make up for it."

The regular IRC drivers will also face strong competition from some of the local crews in Mitsubishi Lancers. Oswaldo Scheer is set to be the top Brazilian, starting as car number ten in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9, but a star attraction is sure to be Argentinean driver Marcos Ligato who was, for many years, a frontrunner in the Production Car World Rally Championship. Ligato will give the new Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 10 its IRC debut in Brazil, and the experienced Argentine is sure to be a top contender throughout both full days of action.

In the IRC 2WD Cup category, Peugeot currently trails Fiat by two points following the Monte Carlo Rally, but the French manufacturer has a chance to make up lost ground thanks to a strong entry in Brazil. Roberto Theodoro will drive a 1600cc-engined 206 for the Metsistem Rallye Team, Fabiano Botelho will pilot a similar car under the Senior Sistemas/Corpflex banner, while Luciano Fleck has been entered in another 1600cc 206, run by his own Fleck Motorsports team.

Fiat is represented in the IRC 2WD Cup by the Palios of Luis Tedesco and Marcelo Franco, while additional entries from Volkswagen and Honda mean that nearly all the IRC-registered manufacturers will be present in Brazil.

The first stage of the rally gets underway at 0900hrs on Friday 6 March, after the cars leave parc ferme at the Curitiba circuit just outside the city centre. The competitors will contest seven stages on the opening day, with the last of those stages starting at 1515hrs. Day two will see the crews start off again at 0900 to take in six more stages, including the most challenging of the rally - the 28 kilometres of Bocaiuva - which is run twice as SS8 and SS11. The final stage of the rally begins at 1445hrs, concluding the 234 competitive kilometres after a total of 13 tough special stages. The finish then takes place at the Curitiba circuit, just before the FIA World Touring Car qualifying session starts.

 

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