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The Pirelli Star Drivers will reach the halfway point of their 2009 programme on the forthcoming Acropolis Rally. Greece’s round of the FIA World Rally Championship is one of the oldest and toughest on the calendar. And this year, with the route moving away from its Athens base, the drivers will meet some of the classic Acropolis stages such as Bauxites and Drossohori – names which send shivers down the spines of those brought up on smooth gravel roads.

This year, the event is based in Loutraki, 85 kilometres west of Athens. Instead of starting the rally outside the Acropolis itself, the organisers have gone for a more modern (in terms of ancient Greece) – but none less astonishing – feat of engineering: the Corinth Canal. Proceedings begin with the ceremonial start on Thursday (11 June) evening.

The rally ahead – Acropolis Rally of Greece
The opening day of this year’s Acropolis Rally has the look of being the toughest. Only one of the stages will be repeated (the 24-kilometre Thiva test), but when the crews leave the sanctuary of the service park in Loutraki, they will not return until the end of the day. Instead, they will head north and take on the rigours of some of the roughest roads in the world with only the spares they’re carrying in the car and a fresh set of Pirelli Scorpion tyres to keep them going. This longest day of the event is centred around the remote service zone in Itea.

The second day is a slightly more familiar routine with two loops of three stages with service in Loutraki at lunchtime. And for those still in one piece after what will be an exceptionally tough test, there’s the ultimate sting in the tail with two passes of the 33-kilometre Aghii Theodori stage on Sunday. The event finishes back in Loutraki at 14:36 hrs on Sunday (14 June).

As well as focusing on the event, the Pirelli Star Drivers will also undergo the second stage of their training programme in Greece. Members of the ESP training team, including 2001 World Champion Robert Reid, will be on hand to work with the five drivers and co-drivers. Training in Greece will be focussed on performance for two days – the first day is prior to the start. The second day’s training is run in real-time during the opening day of the event. The coaching will be looking at attention control and all issues from previous elements of the programme being put into practice. In particular, the crews will be looking at the effect on performance of specific nutrition and hydration elements and micro planning and preparation routines. In addition a pace note workshop will analyse how they perform during recce and on-rally based on review of in-car footage.

Last time out – Rally d’Italia Sardegna (21-24 May)
Finland’s Jarkko Nikara stole the Pirelli Star Driver show on the Rally d’Italia Sardegna. Despite suffering from a misfire for much of the rally, Nikara still managed to collect his first ever Group N podium position on a round of the World Rally Championship. Not only did he set fastest times in his category during the Olbia-based event, but he also recorded the ninth quickest time overall on Friday’s penultimate test. Jon Williams (South Africa) was the only other registered finisher last time out. Williams demonstrated not only improved pace along the Italian island roads, but also an exceptional level of stamina to cope with power steering failure in the 35-degree heat of Saturday afternoon. The training he and the rest of the drivers completed prior to the start of the programme clearly worked well. Nicos Thomas, Mark Tapper and Martin Semerad all failed to finish the event. Thomas’s car was withdrawn on safety grounds, due to a fuel-related problem; Tapper went off the road while suffering from a lack of power – also related to a fuel issue, while Semerad suffered an engine problem late on Saturday.

The drivers

Car 61: Nicos Thomas/Stephane Prevot
Nicos Thomas said: “Coming from Cyprus, I have an idea of what rallying will be like in Greece, even though I have never been to the Acropolis Rally. Almost every rally I have done in the past has been in really hot conditions – that’s what you get when you drive in the Middle East! I’m lucky that I don’t really have to do special training, just more of what I’m already doing – work in the gym and cycling in the sunshine around my country. One thing I will be doing on the rally is drinking much more water. When you get to the end of the stage, it’s incredible how wet your overalls can become with sweat and you have to make sure you replace that liquid.

“One of the areas where the Acropolis is different to the Cyprus Rally is with the average speed on stages – they tend to be higher in Greece. This means when you hit a stone or a ditch in the Mitsubishi, you are going to be travelling faster and probably going to be doing more damage to the car. I think it’s easy to damage the suspension or lose a wheel on this event. The Group N cars are not as strong as the World Rally Cars, which means we will have to raise the ride height on the car to make sure we get over all of the ruts and stones pulled out by the drivers ahead of us. With that in mind, I don’t think the speed is the most important thing for this rally, it’s about getting to the finish – and if you do that, you will have made a great success of your rally. And what a country to do that in! Greece is beautiful. I feel at home there, it’s close to my way of living and it’s a country where they speak my language.

“Twisty and slow rallies are, like I said, what I’m used to – and so they’re also what I prefer. They suit me as a driver as well. Fast rallies like Finland are more interesting for the spectators and drivers, but to be fast there, you need experience of such events. I prefer rallies like the Acropolis and I’m trying to get out and do more local events here in Cyprus between the Pirelli Star Driver programme. Cyprus Tourism Organisation, my sponsor, has been a big help for me. Two events I will be doing later in the season are the Troodos Rally and Jordan Rally, both rounds of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship in October.”

“Greece is undoubtedly going to be hard work. It’s probably the toughest rally in the Championship and it’s going to be tough to get to the end without any problems. But that’s what we’re aiming for. I’m going to shut the heat out of my mind and cope with the conditions as well as I can. My co-driver and I will be aiming to make perfect pace notes and then formulating a plan for the entire rally regarding our pace. I realise we’re going to have to look after the car – particularly on the second pass of stages – and carry some spares to fix things if we’re unfortunate enough to break anything. The main thing for me on this rally is to take more points in the PWRC and try to show the pace to be in the top three PWRC times.”

Q&A with Phil Short, Pirelli Star Driver Supervisor

Q: What’s your experience of the Acropolis Rally, and what advice will you be offering the Pirelli Star Drivers?
A: I never did the event as a co-driver, but it was my very first rally in team management, looking after Ari Vatanen’s Rothmans Escort with David Sutton’s team in 1981. The result wasn’t bad – it was the first of my 77 WRC wins in management. Since then, I’ve overseen another five Acropolis victories, so you could say I have fond memories of the event. The Acropolis will be rough and tough – everybody knows that. It will be especially tough in a Production Car. My advice to the Pirelli Star Drivers will definitely be to pace themselves. I’m guessing that the remote service at Itea on the opening day could be quite busy and possibly crucial to the event.

Q: We’re running some new (or returning to) stages north of Athens this season. What are they like?
A: Some of these are classic Acropolis stages of years gone by, so more mountainous in nature, but still very tough. The new stages in the Peloponnese look intriguing – we were there in 1981.

Q: The Acropolis has a reputation for being a car-breaker. Is that still the case?
A: The retirement rates in recent years have looked lower, but this is mainly due to the SupeRally rules. The actual number of cars getting through without substantial time-loss is still quite small, so yes it can, and almost certainly will be quite a car-breaker.

Q: How much will the heat make a difference on this rally?
A: It makes a difference to the cars and affects the performance, while also stressing tyres and components much more. It also affects the drivers; our training session in the heat chamber at Edinburgh University showed the Pirelli Star Drivers how much fluid they lose in a short time and how their mental capability drops in the stress of the heat situation. So the heat makes errors more likely and the crews have to prepare for that.

Q: The drivers will be using the hard-compound Pirelli Scorpion tyre. Do you expect any tyre wear or puncture problems?
A: The high ambient temperatures and abrasive stages will put the Pirelli tyres under a lot of stress too, but the tyre has proved very strong and durable. So strong in fact that you are more likely to break the rim or the suspension before you break the tyre! So the crews will need to keep that in mind as they drive the stages, but will also need to manage their tyres well between stages to keep the wear situation under control.

Q: Does it ever rain in Greece in June? And if it does, what does that do to the road surface?
A: Yes, it can rain in Greece in June! When it does it tends to be in the form of short, sharp localised showers, which can turn the roads muddy in places, and quite quickly. This is more likely up in the mountains and especially during the afternoons, after the temperature reaches its peak. Because of the sunshine, out in the open the roads dry up quickly, but in the shade under the trees the softer damp surfaces can remain to catch the unwary.

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