One of the most historic and prestigious events on the rally calendar – and the Intercontinental Rally Challenge's penultimate round of the 2009 season - takes place this weekend at the glittering Rallye Sanremo.
For the IRC contenders there is the drivers' title battle at
fever pitch in both the overall series standings and the 2WD Cup, a dramatic chase for second and third places overall, and the unique challenges of an event dating back to 1928.
The Rallye Sanremo sees Britain's Kris Meeke holding the championship lead by just one point after nine riveting events. The Peugeot UK ace has fended off a mighty challenge from Skoda Motorsport star Jan Kopecky, who has won the last two events in Asturias and at home in the Czech Republic to take the title fight down to the last two events.
For either man the title could be won or lost on the asphalt stages of Sanremo in the hills of Ponente Ligure.
Based on the coastline of the Italian Riviera, not far from the Principality of Monte Carlo, the Rallye Sanremo makes a breathtaking backdrop for this great sporting occasion. The narrow, winding roads are punishing and test drivers to their limits, demanding that the cars dance between walls and guardrails amid the spectacular mountain scenery.
As ever the event has drawn a huge number of entries in every class, with a total of 52 cars from Abarth, Honda, Peugeot, Proton, Ralliart and Skoda contesting the overall IRC honours - a total of 24 Super 2000 machines among them.
Backing up the asphalt specialist Kopecky, the works Skoda team will field the second car of Finnish gravel ace Juho Hanninen to support him, with Skoda Italia entering Piero Longhi and Frenchman Julien Maurin entering his own Fabia S2000.
The Abarth team grows from its usual two-car squad to field three Grande Punto S2000s for ex-WRC event winner Francois Duval, together with Sanremo experts Luca Rossetti and Umberto Scandola.
Ralliart sees regular contender Franz Wittmann of Austria at the wheel of his Evo IX, competing alongside local aces Simone Campadelli and Fabio Gianfico.
Proton meanwhile relies on the single entry of British front-runner Guy Wilks as the development of this all-new car, the Satria Neo S2000, continues apace. With the team's experience of the car growing on every kilometre, expectations are high for more points to come their way after a sensational performance in Russia and competitive stage times throughout the season.
By far the most numerous car in the field, the Peugeot 207 S2000 armada will be led by championship leader Meeke and the Benelux Peugeot entries of defending champion Nicolas Vouilloz and Belgian ace Freddy Loix. These two men are locked in a battle for third place in the overall points rankings after a season of enormous highs and disappointing lows, and both men are keen to take the initiative in Sanremo with just two rallies remaining.
Against them will be the cream of Italian rallying talent, all favouring similar machinery and led by Luca Cantamesa, who has been awarded the BFGoodrich Drivers Team entry from a field of exceptional Italian talent. The Kronos-prepared 'guest' car has already taken victory on the opening round of this year's IRC at the Monte Carlo Rally in the hands of WRC star Sebastien Ogier, and Cantamesa will be eager to equal the feat on this prestigious event.
In the 2WD Cup an equally huge entry sees series leader Denis Millet joined by no fewer than five other Peugeot 207 RC cars as he bids to fend of flying Manuel Villa on this, the penultimate round of the season. Villa meanwhile is joined by other Abarth runners as Honda returns in strength to pick up its impressive season so far, bringing guaranteed entertainment throughout the 109-car entry list.
The 51st Rallye Sanremo begins on the evening of Friday 26 September with four special stages – Picche, Fiori and Quadri, ranging between 10.6 and 17.5 kilometres in length - before taking on the enormous 44km Cuori stage to end the night.
These are fast and challenging stages and a significant test to cars and drivers right from the outset of the event. With sunset falling just over an hour into the event, spectacular night time stages will draw in tens of thousands of rally fans from across Italy and beyond.
On Saturday 27 September the rally's concluding leg features five shorter but no less challenging stages in the autumn sunshine of the Riviera. With the risks of punctures and spins at a premium, only the fastest and most accurate crews will thrive to take the flag and take the glory, having covered more than 500km of which 200km are at competition speed.