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The 2008 cross-country rally season finally begins this week with the inaugural Central Europe Rally which will give Team Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart its first taste of competitive action since its win with Stéphane Peterhansel/Jean-Paul Cottret (France) and the Pajero/Montero Evolution on last November's UAE Desert Challenge.
Mitsubishi Motors Corporation (MMC) and its motorsport unit MMSP will be present on the Central Europe Rally with a line-up of four Pajero/Montero Evolutions, including a new dieselpowered MPR14 for Hiroshi Masuoka/Pascal Maimon (Japan/France) alongside a trio of petrol-engined MPR13s for Peterhansel/Cottret, Luc Alphand/Gilles Picard (France) and Juan 'Nani' Roma/Lucas Cruz (Spain).
And, needless to say, everyone in the squad, from the crews to the technical staff, is eagerly awaiting Sunday's start in Budapest and the prospect of almost 1,100km of stages through Hungary and Romania before next Saturday's finish on the shores of Lake Balaton.
"We welcome this opportunity to take our sport and Mitsubishi's colours into this part of Europe," says Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart Team Director Dominique Serieys (France). "Like all the events that figure on our 2008 schedule, this rally forms part of a coherent calendar aimed at optimizing our build-up to the 2009 Dakar and offers a high standard of organisation, security and media coverage. So a big thank you for that to the organisers, ASO."
The rally also stands out as an important milestone inasmuch as it marks the first official appearance of a works-entered diesel Mitsubishi, namely the new MPR14 which will be in the hands of Hiroshi Masuoka. "Like other teams in the past," says Dominique Serieys, "we sincerely see this first outing of our new diesel car as an exploratory event, and the accent will be on developing it for the 2009 Dakar. It's a big step, but we come here in all humility with regard to its position at the finish."
"Each time I have driven this car since the very first tests last June in Morocco, I have seen a real improvement," notes Hiroshi Masuoka, "and I am very excited about driving it for the first time competitively. It is easy to drive, with lots of torque, but this event will primarily be a chance to see where its stands in terms of reliability, so our priority will be to reach the finish."
Lasting wintry conditions in Romania have led the organisers to make several changes to the format of the Central Europe Rally compared with the itinerary announced originally. The overall length has been reduced from a little more than 3,000km to 2,671km, while the total competitive distance has been cut from 1,570km to 1,092km, divided into 12 special stages.
The event is clearly unknown territory for all competitors, but the profile is expected to be more like a WRC rally or a Baja than the wide-open spaces familiarly associated with crosscountry rallying.
"It will be nice to get the 2008 season underway with something so different. Everything about this rally will be new for all the main players, but I think the stages will be very varied," says Stéphane Peterhansel. "The Pajero/Montero Evolution is probably more at home on African style terrain, but it is a nicely balanced, agile car and very easy to drive, and it should be easy, too, to adapt its set-up to the different conditions we come across this week."
Luc Alphand has also been trying to glean as much information as he can about what to expect over the next seven days: "I never tire of discovering new events, and I'm sure this one is going to be something of a mixed bag. From what I hear, there will be some sandy tracks, but also some undulating, bumpy steppe-like stages, plus mud and even snow. There is talk of one lengthy section in Romania which has had to be opened up with snowploughs and which will have high snow-alls either side. The stages tend to short, so that could give drivers with WRC experience a bit of an edge, but we have no intention of letting that phase
us; we are here to win!"
Another Team Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart who is making no secret of his objective to score a top result is Nani Roma, for whom this is essentially his first competitive cross-country rally outing since last July's Baja Espana (he was taken ill early on the 2007 UAE Desert Challenge). "This rally isn't very long and the stages are almost like sprints, so we can't afford to take time to bed ourselves in; we will need to hit the ground running from Sunday morning," promises the Spaniard! "The conditions appear to be very challenging, but the Pajero/Montero Evolution is easy to drive, so I believe we should be able to put in a strong
Tomorrow's start in Budapest (Sunday April 20) will be followed by the first stage (63km) in Hungary, before a long road section (410km) to the Romanian town of Baia Mare where competitors will spend two nights before hitting the trail back west to Hungary.
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