Pirelli ready for mixed-surface rally

Spain will play host to a world championship rally with a difference this weekend. The penultimate event of the WRC season, which takes place from October 21-24, gets underway with one day on gravel roads followed by two on asphalt, the rally's traditional surface, which will allow tyre firm Pirelli to showcase three of its products on a global stage. On Friday (October 22), crews will tackle three stages run twice using the hard compound version of Pirelli's Scorpion WRC gravel tyre. The first, the 35.94-kilometre Terra Alta stage, runs mainly on gravel, albeit with a section of asphalt measuring approximately six kilometres. Stage two, La Ribera d'Ebre, is all-gravel with the third test, Les Garrigues, half on asphalt and half on gravel. Afterwards, teams will rush to convert their cars from gravel to asphalt specification in readiness for days two and three (October 23 and 24) of the event when Pirelli, the official tyre supplier to the WRC under a three-year agreement with the FIA, motorsport's world governing body, will make available its PZero asphalt covers in soft and hard compounds. To add to the challenge, the rally's late October date could result in changeable weather conditions, which have plagued the event in the past before its move to its current home in Salou. And with road position a factor on Friday because the pacesetting drivers will be cleaning the road of the loose-surface gravel, there is a strong likelihood that a surprise leader could emerge following the opening day of competition. With road order having little impact on performance on the race track-style asphalt stages on Saturday and Sunday, a tense fight to the finish is in store. "The rally will be very open this year with a lot of drivers fighting for the victory," said Spanish hero Dani Sordo, who drives a Citroen C4 WRC for the factory team. "With the first day on mixed surfaces and the next two stages on asphalt we could see a really good and challenging rally." Matthew Wilson, who will drive a semi-works Ford Focus, added: "The format will make it a tough event but it will add some spice to the rally, which was sometimes missing in Spain. Driving on Tarmac roads with gravel tyres is never easy but it's part of the challenge." As on all rounds of the world championship, tyre usage is restricted. In Spain Priority 1 and Priority 2 drivers will receive an allocation of 12 hard compound Pirelli Scorpion tyres for gravel use, 20 hard compound Pirelli PZero asphalt tyres for warm and dry conditions and 16 soft compound Pirelli PZero Tarmac tyres for when ambient temperatures are cooler and in the event of rain. Not only is Rally de Espãna round 12 of the main world championship, the event also forms the final round of the Junior World Rally Championship for young aspiring talents in front-wheel drive machinery. Three drivers, Aaron Burkart, Hans Weijs Jr and Karl Kruuda are all in contention for the top prize. They will get a choice of Pirelli's K tyre (for gravel use) and the RE and RX tyre for the all-asphalt stages on Saturday and Sunday. Following a ceremonial start in Salou on Thursday night (October 21), the first stage is due to go live at 0853hrs local time on Friday October 22. Prior to the finish in Salou at 1503hrs on Sunday (October 24), crews will have tackled 355.30 competitive kilometres over 16 special stages. Q&A: Matteo Braga, Pirelli's senior WRC tyre engineer What will be the main challenge for Pirelli on Rally de Espãna? "The problems are not so big. Really we are just expecting a spectacular first day because of the changing surfaces. We have already used the gravel tyre on Tarmac on mainly gravel events in the past and there was no problem. Logistically it won't be so easy for the teams because they have to bring rims for gravel and asphalt conditions but, for us, the quantities are more or less the same as if we were doing a single-surface rally." Are you and your fellow engineers excited about the rally? "It's possible we will see a different result but it's also exciting that we can show three products, our Scorpion gravel tyre and our two compounds of our PZero asphalt tyre. It should also be good for the fans because it is something a bit different and they will be able to understand the differences between a Tarmac and a gravel rally." What are the stages on day one of the rally actually like? "The first one starts off on a type of vineyard gravel with a mix of corners and widths. Then, about halfway through, there's a section of smooth Tarmac lasting about six kilometres. It's on a twisty uphill section over a climb and down the other side. Then you are back on gravel, a bit like the gravel we have in Mexico. The road is narrow for a bit but then it opens out. The second stage is full gravel on quite a hard surface. The third one is 50 per cent asphalt and 50 per cent gravel. The gravel surface is made from a white stone and we've seen in places like Turkey it can be slippery when it's wet." Is it a problem using gravel tyres on an asphalt surface? "Firstly the Tarmac sections will be fun for the drivers and the fans because the cars will be sliding more in the corners. The drivers will need to consider tyre wear a little because it's a very smooth Tarmac surface. We will be using the hard compound gravel tyre, which has been designed for dry conditions." Do you expect the weather to be an issue? "It's the autumn and we've seen in Spain before that it can rain and be very slippery. But we have the soft compound tyre to help in the damp conditions, like we found on Rallye de France."