The Barum Czech Rally Zlin, round 8 of 11 in this year's Intercontinental Rally Challenge, takes place this weekend (August 21-23), with a huge entry including no fewer than 25 of the top-flight Super 2000 machines – another record attendance for the IRC.
A truly iconic rally
in Europe, the Barum Czech Rally Zlin is the foremost motor sport event in the Czech Republic. As a result the race draws enormous interest, all the more so in 2009 as the works Skoda Motorsport team attempts to unseat the leading Peugeot runners from the top of this year's championship tables.
Skoda missed the previous round, the Rali Vinho Madeira earlier this month, in order to focus its pair of Fabia S2000 machines on an all-out assault on its home event. Asphalt ace Jan Kopecky sits just five points behind current series leader Kris Meeke with three rounds remaining, and as his team-mate Juho Hanninen suggested, there is enormous pressure for the 27-year-old to soak up.
"The pressure will be on Jan because he is a Czech driver in a Czech car and is very quick," Skoda's Finnish gravel star said. "For me, it will be my first time there so I am not expecting anything too much. A top-five finish would be good."
Piling additional pressure on Kopecky, championship leader Kriss Meeke himself said he expects to see his Skoda rival to take the honours on the event.
"Jan showed in Ypres how quick he could be and I'm sure there will be no driver quicker than him," he said. "He knows the event well and he'll be wanting to prove he's the top Czech driver."
Once again Meeke heads a large entry of Peugeot 207 S2000 machines, including the two Peugeot Belgium-Luxemburg-entered cars of Belgian star Freddy Loix and France's defending IRC champion Nicolas Vouilloz.
Among the other same-make runners are some extremely fast and experienced Czech runners, such as Pavel Valousek, ex-Skoda WRC man Roman Kresta and the BFGoodrich Drivers Team entry of newly-crowned Junior World Rally Championship winner Martin Prokop.
Coming into the Barum Czech Rally Zlin on a high is the Abarth squad, after team leader Giandomenico Basso won the last event in Madeira to boost himself into the IRC title race. The second of the team's Grande Punto S2000 machines will be driven once again by Luca Rossetti, as the all-Italian squad catches up on its Skoda and Peugeot rivals.
Meanwhile, among the 'guest' entries on the event will be Citroen Junior WRC team member Evgeny Novikov.
The teenage Russian is the third and final member of the Citroen squad to have competed in this year's IRC, after his French team-mate Sebastien Ogier took a stunning victory on Round One in Monte Carlo when he drove the BFGoodrich Drivers Team Peugeot, and was followed by young Zimbabwean Conrad Rautenbach when he drove another Peugeot on the Rally Azores.
Novikov will drive a Skoda Fabia S2000 and is expected to have new co-driver Stephane Prevot alongside him.
A large contingent of Ralliart entries also makes its way to the Barum Czech Rally Zlin, led by Franz Wittmann, son of the two-time winner of this classic Czech event, Franz Wittmann Sr. The younger Wittmann was not optimistic that his turbocharged production-spec Mitsubishi Evo IX could challenge for outright victory against the lighter S2000 machines, but was looking forward to a tough and close competition to be the top Ralliart finisher.
Among those bidding to beat Wittmann are Dutchman Jasper van den Heuvel, who flew on his last IRC appearance in Ypres with his unique Evo X. The remaining 29 Ralliart runners will compete in the tried and tested Evo IX and will be crewed by contenders for the local championship, who will doubtless show strongly against the international field of the IRC.
Proton's all-new IRC effort with the Satria Neo S2000 sees the single car to have competed so far, that of British driver Guy Wilks, paired up with a second entry for Frenchman Bryan Bouffier. The highly-promising new contender Proton scored a fourth-place finish in last month's Rally Russia in Wilks's hands, and as the car continues to undergo rigorous development to make up ground it can be expected to perform more strongly on every event.
Honda also returns to IRC action in the Czech Republic with a strong entry in the 2WD Cup. On last month's Rally Russia the top two-wheel-drive Civic Type R performed strongly enough to give the Japanese giant its first outright points in the IRC, but with competition from Peugeot and Abarth there will be a tremendous battle in store for the class honours.
The Barum Czech Rally Zlin gets underway in the town centre of Zlin on the evening of Friday August 21 with a ceremonial start at 9pm local time, leading into a fabulous spectator-friendly super special stage in the city.
On Saturday 22 August Day One continues from 08:00am with two runs through the Pindula, Halkovice, and Kudlovice stages. Finally the event reaches a climax on Sunday 23 August when the field tackles the Trojak, Semetin and Komarov stages in the morning and once more in the afternoon before the victory celebrations can begin back in Zlin at 16:00