There are only 18,000 inhabitants in the small west coast town of Sligo, home to Rally HQ and the service park. It is located approx 200km from Belfast, which plays host to the event-opening Super Special in the grounds of Stormont castle. The last asphalt outing of the year, the stages are unusually bumpy, quite unlike any other sealed surface rally and will make for an unique challenge.
Secondhand World Rally Cars are prolific in Ireland, and no fewer than 36 of these cars are on the entry list. Among them, Subarus have enjoyed great success, this year dominating the Irish Tarmac Championship and claiming the top four spots in the overall standings. As the WRC comes to town, thousands of enthusiastic spectators are expected to follow the action.
The weather in November is as you might expect Ė unpredictable with the ever-present chance of rain. The surface is usually damp, and a mix of asphalt and gravel, meaning the cars are setup in a totally different way to any other asphalt event. Tyre choice will be critical with the changing conditions, and the very narrow routes and high speed mean it will be easy to make mistakes. Despite the fact that dusk will fall at around 1630hrs, the short spectator stage in Belfast will be the only stage that the lead WRC cars will start in the dark.
A pilot event was run last year that featured stages winding through similar areas to this yearís route, however the exact stages have not been rallied before. Totally new is the spectator Super Special stage in Stormont, Belfast which starts the rally on Thursday evening. The second section of leg one, the trickiest of the rally, commences from Sligo on Friday.
Although the total liaison distance is only 853.91km (excluding travel to Belfast for SS1), the event route takes in eight counties, both to the north and the south of the island, and crosses between Ulster and the Republic of Ireland, making it a very diverse event.
Chris competed on Rally Ireland last year so has an idea of what the conditions can be like, but Petter and Xevi have no experience of Irish asphalt.
Car Number 7
Petter Solberg: ďI have never rallied in Ireland before so it will be very new for me, but I am looking forward to it. The fans in Ireland are rally-mad which is really good. Itís always nice to drive in front of people who are really into it. It would have been good to do a few rallies earlier in the year to get a feel for the surface, but still we prepare and focus 110 per cent. It will be very interesting I think, especially with the chance that the 2007 championship can be decided there.Ē
Car Number 8
Chris Atkinson: ďRally Ireland is a totally different event, not just in terms of the bumpy surface. Being a new round itís very difficult to prepare for. Weíve driven the route in a Group N car, but the extra speed of the WRC car is bound to make it very different. When everything comes up faster, it becomes more difficult as you have to process the information faster, and when it is all new that is the hard part. The surface is half asphalt and half gravel, which means we have to use an unique setup. We actually set the car up for the wet to get the compromise between the two surfaces, and the high chance of rain. Rather than when the asphalt gets wet and slippery, itís when the asphalt is totally dry that you lose time.Ē
Car Number 14
Xevi Pons: ďI havenít been to Ireland before so itís another new weekend for me. Ok, it will be a hard rally and very slippery, so it will be easy to make a mistake but I will push as hard as I can. We havenít done any testing there so I donít really know what to expect from the conditions, but I still prepare in the same way as any rally, and learn as fast as I can from the recce days.Ē
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