Rally Catalunya Preview

With two rallies left in the season, the driver’s championship is still very much up for grabs, and four drivers have a legitmate shot at winning the championship. Catalunya is a touch different than the previous two tarmac rallies, being a bit more wide open that Corsica and San Remo. Conditions will be trickier as well, as there’s lots of corner-cutting, meaning lots of gravel and dirt pulled on the roads. The chances of a single driver pulling away from the rest in championship standings is pretty slim, as Carlos Sainz has only a six point gap between himself and current fourth place driver Sebastien Loeb. Loeb will no doubt be gunning for the victory, and he’s got to be tipped as the favorite again (despite his spin in Corsica). But Sainz, Richard Burns, and Petter Solberg just need a good points score to set up an exciting season finale in Great Britain.

The team by team breakdowns:

A suprise win for Subaru last weekend in Corsica, especially after Solberg’s shunt during the shakedown. The team is hoping again for damp conditions, where their Pirelli-shod Imprezas seem to dominate. But even if the weather doesn’t cooperate, Solberg was quick enough on the opening days in the France to keep the leaders in his sights, and that’s all he needs to do this weekend if he wants a shot at winning the championship in Britain. Tommi Makinen had a solid drive in France, and he’ll be looking to finish in the points again to help Subaru consolidate its hold on third place in the manufacturer’s championship.

Citreon is the new Peugeot. Just look at them. They are extending their lead in the manufacturer’s championship, and they have two cars gunning for the driver’s championship. It’s been a good first full year for the team.

As I said, Loeb is again the favorite, and he seems strongest on these “mixed surface” tarmac rallies (he’s won Germany and Monte Carlo this year as well). If he can stay out of trouble, he will be competing for the win come Sunday. This is Carlos Sainz’s home event, and he’s always done well in Spain, but I expect he’ll be more interested in managing his lead in the championship rather than gunning for the win. Sainz, much like Richard Burns, has really benefited from the new points scale this year — remember, he’s won only a single rally this year, compared to Loeb and Solberg’s three apiece. Colin McRae, who be forced to retire at the end of the season due to the lack of a drive next year, has been very consistent lately — he’s only missed the points on two rallies this year — and he’ll be critical piece in Citroen’s attempt to win the manufacturer’s title. McRae should have no problems finishing in the top 6.

Oh how the mightly have fallen. Manager Corrado Provera went out his way this week to proclaim that the 206 is not dead yet, and the team still has a chance in the championship. The facts seem to speak differently however. Marcus Gronholm never found his stride this year (due mostly to mechanical problems), and Gilles Panizzi has been mostly invisible this month. If the team has any hope of staying in the manufacturer’s race, someone is going to have to mighty quick this weekend.

Richard Burns has to hope for a good drive this weekend to stay in the title hunt. He had flashed of brilliance in France, but never found a consisten rhythm. He’d be happy to see the title fight come down to a win in Britain, but he’s got to leave Spain with at least four points to stay in the hunt.

Lots of potential, but not a lot of results. Both Markko Martin and Francois Duval have been quick on the sealed surfaces this month, but mechanical problems and plain old inexperience got the better of the young guns. Martin is also a favorite for the win this weekend, but he would need the top four drivers to retire to have any shot at the championship. Should Martin take the lead at the any point, I expect that everyone will simply fight for points below him — no need to put championship hopes in jeopardy fighting for a win with a non-contender. Duval isn’t expecting much this weekend, as he has little experience in Spain, but he should wind up in the points with a solid drive.

Yet another step in the development of the Fabia. Toni Gardenmeister had issues with the car’s anti-roll bar during shakedown, and he expects it to be a problem during the rally as well. He had the same issue in France, but thanks to the immediate trip to Spain, the team had no time to work out the kinks. Didier Auriol is starting his 150th WRC rally, and he’s the team’s best shot at getting into the top ten.

My Top 8*
1. Sebastien Loeb
2. Markko Martin
3. Petter Solberg
4. Carlos Sainz
5. Colin McRae
6. Richard Burns
7. Tommi Makinen
8. Francois Duval

* Why top 8 all of a sudden? Well, that covers the championship points places.