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21 April 2024

Adding fuel to the fire


By Gary Meenaghan

Rally drivers may be accustomed to tackling testing terrain and overcoming juddering jumps, but they face their biggest challenge yet when the 2009 World Rally Championship season gets under way on Thursday.

Rally Ireland is the first round of a shortened calendar, which will see a two-year rotation policy begin. In 2010, the entire calendar will change, only to return in 2011.

The result is controversial seeing that some of the most popular races, such as Sweden, have been shelved for 12 months, while Poland hosts its first WRC event in 36 years.

And it's not only the races that are different this season; the manufacturers have been reduced too.

The economic downturn forced Suzuki to pull out last month, followed, 24-hours later, by Subaru. The result being that only Ford and Citroen remain.

Reigning champion Sebastien Loeb's Citroen moved quickly to create the Citroen Junior Team, which has found a seat for former Subaru talent Chris Atkinson, while Ford will continue with their Abu-Dhabi backed BP-Ford, as well as their Stobart and Munchi's crews.

The UAE will continue its presence in the world of WRC not only with the branding of the country's capital, but also with the inclusion of Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi.

Al Qassimi, the third driver for BP-Ford, will compete in nine of the 12 rallies in 2009 and is looking to better his record of ninth, achieved in last year's Rally Jordan. With less rallies and less manufacturers, the WRC needs to balance economics with entertainment. That will not only be the drivers' biggest challenge, but also the sport's governing body.