The all-action Intercontinental Rally Challenge season six reaches its climax in Cyprus from 2-4 November with a star-studded line-up of crews tackling the Mediterranean islandâ€™s demanding mixed-surface stages.
Gravel and asphalt special stages
With 70 per cent of the timed runs on gravel and 30 per cent on asphalt and some stages featuring a combination of both surfaces, driver skill is put to the ultimate test as competitors grapple with compromised levels of handling and grip on some of the most demanding special stages in the world.
Based in Paphos
Based in Paphos, in the south-west of the island, the Cyprus Rally first ran in 1970 and its list of illustrious winners includes Stig Blomqvist, SÃ©bastien Loeb, Colin McRae, Ari Vatanen and BjÃ¶rn WÃ¥ldegard. Since its inclusion on the IRC calendar for the first time in 2010, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Andreas Mikkelsen have both enjoyed outright success.
They will both be in action this year with Mikkelsen, the defending IRC champion, starting the event with an unassailable points advantage at the top of the standings in his Å KODA UK Motorsport Fabia Super 2000. The Norwegian, 23, is planning the ultimate victory parade during the two days of competition by chasing a third victory of 2012 alongside co-driver Ola FlÃ¸ene to seal his second IRC title in style.
However, itâ€™s not just the main IRC driversâ€™ and co-driversâ€™ titles that will be settled in Cyprus. The IRC Production Cup and IRC 2WD Cup crowns are both up for grabs with several drivers in contention in the two hotly-contested support categories.
Whatâ€™s happening when?
This yearâ€™s Cyprus Rally begins with a ceremonial start on the evening of Friday 2 November followed by the 3.20-kilometre Super Special Stage through the streets of Paphos from 19:00hrs local time.
Six stages take place on Saturday 3 November over a competitive distance of 100.32 kilometres, with a further six stages running on Sunday 4 November with 133.62 kilometres timed. The finish will take place in Paphos at 16:56hrs local time on Sunday.
As well as counting as the 13th and final round of the 2012 IRC season, the Cyprus Rally is also the penultimate event of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship schedule.
A tough rally only the best finish
Cyprus used to be synonymous with punishing tight and twisty rock-strewn gravel tracks but the inclusion of asphalt and smooth loose-surface roads has increased average speeds and made it slightly less hard on car and crew. However, the event remains a tough test with high ambient and ground temperatures adding to the challenge.
Of the three repeated stages on the opening day, one takes place on gravel, one is on asphalt and one is on a combination of the two. Sundayâ€™s route features two mixed-surface stages plus the event-closing all-gravel 30.41-kilometre Panayia test, which is the longest of the rally.
Double points will be on offer for all categories in Cyprus, which will only serve to increase the spectacle on offer.
New Prodomi to Neo Chorio special stage
One of the exciting changes for this year is the inclusion of the 19.43-kilometre Prodromi-Neo Chorio stage, which will run twice on day one. Last year it was used for the Golden Stage Rally and is described by IRC Manager Jean-Pierre Nicolas as a â€œbeautiful and spectacular stageâ€.
Middle East meets West
Itâ€™s a case of (middle) east meets west with leading runners from the FIA Middle East Rally Championship going up against the Intercontinental Rally Challenge regulars on the Cyprus Rally.
Qatarâ€™s Nasser Al-Attiyah is a seven-time Middle East champion and a huge fan of the Cypriot stages. A London 2012 Olympics bronze medallist in the menâ€™s skeet shooting event, Al-Attiyah is armed with an M-Sport Ford Fiesta RRC and is a firm contender for victory with Italian co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini.
Andreas Mikkelsen won the Cyprus Rally last season to clinch the IRC title in a thrilling five-way shootout. A Mikkelsen victory would not only confirm the talented youngster as the first back-to-back IRC champion, it would also hand Å KODA its 28th IRC event victory.
Sepp Wiegand has impressed throughout his maiden IRC season for Å KODA Auto Deutschland and will complete his campaign in Cyprus looking to add to his experience of Super 2000 competition and claim his first podium after coming extremely close on the Sibiu Rally in Romania in July.
Saudi Arabiaâ€™s Yazeed Al-Rajhi is no stranger to IRC competition having tackled selected events in the past for Kronos Racing. He now competes in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 under the Yazeed Racing banner, also the car of choice for Russian Vasily Gryazin.
Other S2000 entries
Khalid Al-Suwaidi, from Qatar, will be at the wheel of a Fiesta RRC, as will multiple Lebanese champion Roger Feghali, who shone on the IRCâ€™s first visit to Cyprus in 2010.
Hungarian veteran LÃ¡szlÃ³ Vizin completes the Super 2000 runners eligible for IRC points in a Eurosol Racing Fabia.
IRC Production Cup
With Robert Consani switching to his Renault Clio R3 due to his Renault MÃ©gane RS not being homologated for use on gravel events, the French title leader wonâ€™t be able to defend his 22-point advantage in Cyprus.
That will play into the hands of Dream Team Ukraineâ€™s Vitaliy Pushkar and Subaru Impreza R4 STI runners Andreas Aigner (Austria) and Marco Tempestini (Romania).
Outgoing champion Toshi Arai, from Japan, exciting Finn Jarkko Nikara, Lebanese youngster Nick Georgiou, Germanyâ€™s Armin Kremer, Hungarian MiklÃ³s Bujdos and Cypriot Charalambos Timotheou will also be in the fight for IRC Production Cup glory.
IRC 2WD Cup
While Robert Consani wonâ€™t be able to defend his IRC Production Cup lead, he will be firmly in the thick of the scrap for the IRC 2WD Cup in his Renault Clio R3. Consani, from France, holds an 11-point margin over Briton Harry Hunt, who clinched the IRC 2WD Cup title in Cyprus back in 2010. Elsewhere Zacharias Manoli heads the Honda challenge in his Civic, while Menya KrÃ³zser switches cars following a heavy crash on the Mabanol Sliven Rally last month.