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Peugeot announces new European Rally Championship programme

Peugeot ERC

Peugeot will return to the European Rally Championship with a factory team of 208 T16s in 2017.

The French marque abandoned the ERC last year in favour of the World Rally Championship-supporting WRC2 category, prompting castigation from ERC co-ordinator Jean-Baptiste Ley.

But it will be back in 2017 with Peugeot Sport-run T16s for Pepe Lopez and Jose Suarez, the last two winners of its French Championship-based 208 Rally Cup series.

Both drivers are eligible for the ERC's new Junior U28 class that offers a WRC prize drive.

Peugeot Sport director Bruno Famin said Lopez and WRC2 convert Suarez's ERC move was "an opportunity to gain experience and fine-tune their professionalism without pressure as part a of a high-level operation".

Previous factory Peugeot drivers in the ERC and its Intercontinental Rally Challenge predecessor include Kris Meeke, Thierry Neuville, Guy Wilks, Craig Breen and Kevin Abbring.

ENTRY LIST RECOVERING

The ERC has struggled for profile in recent years amid diminishing factory interest and a lack of full-time frontrunning entries, but is showing signs of recovery ahead of its 2017 season - which begins with Rally Azores on March 30-April 1.

Last week the Sports Racing Technologies team that took Ralfs Sirmacis to three victories last season announced that it would enter a three-car Skoda Fabia outfit this year.

While Sirmacis only has the budget for two rallies so far, Nikolay Gryazin will contest a full campaign and Raul Jeets will return for selected rounds.

Former GT racer Albert von Thurn und Taxis, a race winner in Blancpain and 2010 ADAC GT co-champion, plans a full ERC season in a Wevers Sport-run Skoda.

Opel will also continue its factory effort in the R2 class and new Junior U27 category, running last year's ERC Junior runner-up Chris Ingram, ADAC Opel Rallye Cup champion Jari Huttunen and Red Bull-backed Tamara Molinaro.

Last year's ERC champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz hopes to announce his 2017 plans this month, while his '16 title rival Alexey Lukyanuk is believed to be deliberating over whether to make a WRC move or stay in the ERC.

Freddy Loix wins Ypres Rally 2016

CALENDAR CUT

The ERC suffered two calendar blows going into 2017, losing flagship events the Circuit of Ireland and Ypres Rally.

The Irish event will not run at all this year due to funding concerns, while Ypres has switched allegiance to the British Rally Championship.

That means the ERC schedule is down from 10 rallies to eight, but Ley hit out at Ypres' decision and defended his calendar late last year.

"The Ypres Rally organisers decided their event has a future without a partnership with a major international FIA championship or significant levels of television coverage," Ley told Autosport.

"An eight-event calendar is realistic when you consider the market and economic climate."

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