SALOU, Spain October 21 – The Rally of Catalunya is shaping up to be a drawn-out battle between Sebastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen, who are neck-and-neck going into the 12th and penultimate race of the World Rally Championship season.
Citroen’s Loeb, the seven-time world champion, heads into the three-day race with 196 points, the same as Ford’s Hirvonen, a Finn who has twice been world runner-up.
The leg pits them against each other — Loeb in a Citroen DS3 and Hirvonen in a Ford Fiesta RS — on a more than 400-kilometre (250-mile) course that starts on gravel and ends on asphalt, with 18 special stages.
The first day will be special stages on gravel track punctuated by short patches of pavement.
Saturday and Sunday will take place on asphalt after a special 75-minute stop Friday evening, extended from the usual 45 minutes to give the teams time to switch tyres and reconfigure their suspensions.
Loeb, who has won four races this season to Hirvonen’s two, will start the race Friday — a handicap for the Frenchman, who could end up packing down the course for his rivals.
“If the weather is dry, it’s never good to open the course on gravel. I risk falling behind Friday evening. On the asphalt in the following stages, those ahead won’t be as handicapped,” he said.
“For me, the strategy is going to be extremely simple: attack from start to finish.”
Loeb, who has exited three races early this season — he got a puncture in Germany, rolled his car in Australia and suffered engine failure in France — also opened last year’s Catalunya rally, but that didn’t stop him from claiming the title.
On Ford’s side, Sweden and Australia winner Hirvonen said he’s expecting an exciting weekend.
“The only (sure) way to win the title is to win the last two rallies. None of us can sit secure, it’s all or nothing,” he said.
“I’m going to do everything possible in Spain to make sure the fight goes to the last race” — the Wales Rally GB, to be fought November 11-13 on gravel.
But Citroen have an advantage over Ford thanks to Sebastien Ogier, who is just three points behind the two leaders.
Ogier has had two wins in three races, and is “more than a wildcard for Citroen,” said the team’s chief, Olivier Quesnel.
Ford have Jari-Matti Latvala, who is better than Hirvonen on asphalt but is out of running for the title.
Other contenders include Petter Solberg, also in a Citroen DS3, who took second last year in Salou and was third in France earlier this month before being disqualified when his car was found to be four kilos too light.
Dani Sordo, driving a Mini Cooper, could also win.
The Spaniard took third in Germany and second in France, and has always been strong on his home turf. He will be hoping for at least a podium finish, which would be his 32nd in the WRC.