An impressive line-up of 49 crews will contest the first International Rally Challenge event to be held on the Azores islands.
Sata Rally Azores, which takes place from May 7-9, is the fourth round of the IRC. Of the registered drivers, 12 will compete in Super 2000 machinery, including Freddy Loix, who heads the IRC drivers‘ standings after three events.
Juho Hanninen, who led the opening IRC event of the season in Monte Carlo, will carry number one on the side of his factory Skoda Fabia S2000 although he will start further down the order when the competitors are allocated their seeded positions based on their performances in the IRC this year and other results.
Hanninen’s team-mate Jan Kopecky is also entered for the event, which marks the second appearance of the season by the Czech manufacturer.
Anton Alen and Giandomenico Basso will represent Abarth in two factory Grande Puntos, while Bernardo Sousa will appear in a semi-works machine.
Freddy Loix, Bruno Magalhaes, Kris Meeke, Vitor Pascoal, Nicolas Vouilloz and newcomer Conrad Rautenbach will drive the six Peugeot 207 S2000s on the entry. Magalhaes won Rally Azores last season.
Portuguese drivers Ricardo Moura and Fernando Peres will lead the Ralliart effort in a pair of Lancer Evo IXs. The talented Austrian Franz Wittmann Jr will also be at the wheel of a Lancer.
Julien Maurin will drive the sole Volkswagen Polo S2000 on the entry, while Manuel Villa returns to the 2WD Cup in a Fiat Punto S1600 where he will compete against Denis Millet in a Peugeot 207 RC Rallye.
The event begins with a superspecial stage on the evening of Thursday May 7. The final stage is due to start on the evening of Saturday May 9. There will be a total of 18 stages with a combined competitive distance of 229.86 kilometres.

The Skoda team will return to the IRC after a promising debut in Monte Carlo


Roman Kresta could prove a major threat to the established Intercontinental Rally Challenge regulars when he contests Barum Rally Zlin in August.
Kresta, who is the reigning Czech champion, crashed out on the second stage of his home event last year. But he will return in 2009 in a Peugeot 207 Super 2000 prepared by his own Kresta Racing Team. He will be co-driven by long-term partner Petr Gross.
Although Kresta insists that defending his domestic crown this season is his number one priority, the 33-year-old is highly regarded both in his homeland and abroad. He was a member of the factory Ford team in the World Rally Championship in 2005 before returning to Czech Republic in 2007 following a season in the British Rally Championship in a Ford Fiesta S1600.
Furthermore, Peugeot 207s have triumphed on the asphalt event since it was first included in the IRC in 2007: Nicolas Vouilloz claimed victory that year, while Freddy Loix emulated that achievement the following season.
Barum Rally Zlin begins with a superspecial stage through the streets of Zlin on Friday August 21. The event is due to finish in the afternoon of Sunday August 23.
Giandomenico Basso will resume his Intercontinental Rally Challenge campaign on Sata Rally Azores next month on the back of winning the opening round of the European Rally Championship, the Rally 1000 Miglia in Italy recently.
Basso, who lies equal second in the IRC drivers‘ title standings after three rounds, was driving an Abarth Grande Punto for the privateer Team D’Ambra operation. He beat Renato Travaglia in a Peugeot 207 S2000 by 33 seconds.
Amid changeable weather conditions, Basso was able to overhaul Travaglia, who led after the opening leg, to claim his third win on the asphalt event, despite his car being slowed by a throttle cable problem.
The win will be a welcome boost for the 35-year-old Italian, who hasn’t won in the IRC since Rally Sanremo last September.
The factory-supported Proton team is still set to compete in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge this season, despite opting against an entry on Sata Rally Azores next month.
Although the UK-based Mellors Elliot Motorsport squad never formally committed to the island event, company principal Chris Mellors indicated earlier this season that he wanted his team to begin competing as soon as possible.
It is now likely that the first Proton entry will be on the Belgium Ypres Rally from June 18-20 when at least one Satria Neo S2000 will appear, possibly for British driver Guy Wilks.
Wilks was dominating the second round of the British championship in a Proton recently, before his car caught fire as a result of damage caused by a minor excursion. Although the vehicle was destroyed, MEM has already begun building a replacement.
"In the end the Azores wasn’t practical because we would lose the car for about one month with the time it would take to ship it there and back," said Mellors. "But we still want to do some IRC events as soon as possible this year and we would like it to be with Guy although we’re also talking to some other drivers about other events."

Proton is expecting to make its IRC debut soon


Kris Meeke continued his preparations for Sata Rally Azores by completing a two-day test in a Peugeot 207 Super 2000 development car in France recently.
The Peugeot UK driver, who won the second round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge in Brazil last month, covered approximately 400 kilometres during the test in France, near the town of Vie in the centre of the country.
"It’s impossible to make improvements when these cars are so competitive and so closely matched but we’ve been able to make a few changes for the Azores and I am very pleased with what we achieved because it was a very good test," said Meeke, who is from Northern Ireland.
French Peugeot drivers Stephane Sarrazin and Nicolas Vouilloz also took part in the test, which was designed to experiment with suspension settings for the gravel-based Rally Azores, which takes place from May 7-9.

Curitiba winner Kris Meeke enjoyed a useful test with his Peugeot 207 S2000

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