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Posted by Nathan Strum, 23 February 2011 · 4,194 views

The 2011 World Rally Championship season has kicked off, and yet there's zero TV coverage of it so far.

So where I'd normally use this as an opportunity to recap the highlights, instead I'm going to use it as an opportunity to just talk about car stuff in general.

Until HD Theater gets off their thumbs, that is. :x

Currently, the rumor I've been eagerly following is the joint Toyota/Subaru TC-86 concept sports car. Toyota design, Subaru power train. Now that's what I'm talkin' 'bout.

Rumor has been that there will be a Toyota version (possibly the new Celica), and a slightly re-styled Subaru version with possibly a larger engine and all-wheel drive. Hopefully, that's very slightly re-styled.

Not that Subaru can't design good-looking cars (this one's mine)...

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It's just that at the moment, they don't seem to be choosing to.

What happened? They had a really good looking car until they added an Edsel grill to it.

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Then things just got worse. :razz:

Seriously... the current Impreza is one ugly looking car. It looks like any one of a dozen other generic Japanese or Korean compacts.

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Then, they added all that ugly, plasticky, swoopy stuff to the STi version. It looks like someone beat it with an ugly stick!

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Their new Impreza concept is a case of two steps forward, one step back. The back-end of it looks pretty sweet, but the front end looks like someone slammed it face-first into an ugly tree! The overall lines are good, but it's just got too much fiddly, useless detail stuff like the current STi.

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I bet if they cleaned it up a bit, it'd look pretty good.

Anyway, Subaru's lack of aesthetics (and my now-tempered enthusiasm for the brand) is why I'm excited about the rumored TC-86. The concept renderings looked pretty cool. Of course, concept renderings always do, and they almost never make it into production.

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And of course, the one-off auto-show concepts are even further removed from reality (although this is actually a concept for a hybrid Toyota/Subaru)...

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And the "mules" they use to test the platform out aren't exactly inspiring...

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But now, it looks like this bad-boy may become the actual car:

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The rumors now, however, point to the Toyota version becoming a Scion. Specifically, the Scion FT-S.

Anyway, the Subaru version of whatever this is, is now slated to be revealed at the Geneva Motor Show in March. The Toyota/Scion version is slated for a New York Auto Show debut in April. Whether any of these will hit the showroom floors anytime soon is the big question, and as far as I'm concerned, there's no rush anyway. I'm not looking to replace my Subaru for the foreseeable future.

Unless, of course, something sexier comes along. ;)

Speaking of cars, the new season of Top Gear started a couple of weeks ago on BBC America. I'd really like to see them take on the slackers from the U.S. travesty that is our version of "Top Gear" in a series of challenges (like they recently did for the Australian version), and completely humiliate them. Shouldn't be too hard. If the U.S. team tried to be funny or entertaining, that would be pretty humiliating right there.

But it would be good TV. :D

The Greece highlights aired a week late, but I got to watch them today.

This week, the road won.

On the first day, Petter Solberg (starting fifth on the road) worked up a 50 second lead over the pack. In part, this was due to him being just crazy fast, but also because Sebastien Loeb had to run first and sweep gravel out of the way for everyone else. Jari-Matti Latvala was right on Solberg's heels, but again ran into mechanical problems with his Ford Fiesta (front differential and turbo problems), effectively taking him out of the running.

On the second day, Solberg had to do road sweeping duties, and ended up losing his entire lead, and then some (in part due to a mistake where he missed a turn). At the end of the day (in a night stage), Sebastien Ogier played road order tactics by slowing down and forcing Sebastien Loeb to finish first, and therefore also forcing him to do the road sweeping on day 3. Something Loeb was none-too-happy about, given that Ogier is his Citroën teammate. Also in the night stage, Solberg's co-driver lost his place in his pace notes, costing them even more time. Although from a pace notes standpoint, nobody had a worse weekend than Mads Ostberg, whose co-driver's pace notes were stolen on the way to the rally, so they had to create a new set from scratch once they got there (and yet more mechanical problems didn't do him any good, either).

Loeb only started out with a 2 second lead on the third day, which was quickly overcome by Ogier. In the end, Ogier took first (and first in the Power Stage), followed by Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen. Petter Solberg never managed to regain his lost time and ended up fourth, followed by his brother Henning in fifth. Latvala ended up in ninth. (As an interesting aside, the Solbergs will be providing a couple of voices in the Norwegian dubbed version of Cars 2. Maybe that will help make it a better film. But probably not. :roll: )

There was plenty of good racing, although the whole road order tactics thing diminished that significantly, in my opinion. However, it looks like those sort of tactics' days are numbered.

Starting next season, the rules are being changed to effectively eliminate the role that road sweeping plays. The shakedown stage (which happens before the official start of the rally, and doesn't currently count towards anything) will next year be used as a sort of qualifying stage. The fastest time gets to choose their road position for the first day. Second fastest gets second choice, and so on. So this will add another level of competition to the rally, before the actual rally even begins. On subsequent days, they'll start in reverse order of how they finished, so the slowest cars from the previous days will get stuck sweeping the roads. While this may not seem all that fair to the slower cars (making them even slower still), generally they're going to be several minutes down anyway, so the difference wouldn't be as significant for them, as for the front-runners.

Next time - the WRC returns to Finland at the end of July with 21 WRC entrants, and possibly 124 cars in total. Should be quite the race!

Edit: They also showed some more highlights from the PWRC race in Argentina, as well as highlights from the Circuit of Ireland rally, both featuring some nice Subaru action. :thumbsup:
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Top Gear Series 17 started on June 26th in the UK - not sure if it has made it over there yet?

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Having slower cars start first also leads to more excitements as the faster cars have to pass them.
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Top Gear Series 17 started on June 26th in the UK - not sure if it has made it over there yet?Chris

Nope - no new Top Gear here yet. We tend to get them a few weeks late.
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Having slower cars start first also leads to more excitements as the faster cars have to pass them.

But since they start two minutes apart, there likely won't be any actual passing going on (if the cars are that slow, then they're supposed to get out of the way), but it could certainly cause issues for the faster cars with lingering dust trails and deeper ruts left by slower vehicles ahead of them.

What I find most intriguing, is the potential for some sleepers to come out of nowhere during qualifying, and set faster times than the typical rally leaders, possibly leveling out the playing field a bit more.
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Last weekend they showed the highlights from Rally Finland - the spiritual home of rallying.

Another excellent rally. Mikko Hirvonen unfortunately clipped a tree in the first stage, taking him out of contention. It was really too bad though, since the rest of the weekend he was the fastest driver out there, and almost certainly would have won the rally. But he did at least win the power stage, and managed to claw his way up from 36th to 4th place.

Tactics was the name of the game again with Citroën. Not sure what's going on with that team, but they seem to keep trying to make it so that Sebastien Ogier wins instead instead of Sebastien Loeb. Maybe they're trying to move him up to second in the driver's championship. But Loeb would have none of that, as despite the tactics, he ended up winning the rally anyway. He's just that good. Jari Matti Latvala (on home soil, as was Hirvonen) took second place, pushing Ogier to third. They did a nice interview segment on Latvala, showing his home and some of the cars he owns. He's building replicas of famous rally cars in his garage, partly for fun, but also (and quite smartly) to build up his own mechanical skills.

There were quite a few spectacular crashes - mostly in the PWRC group though. The usual gang of the Solberg brothers and Mads Ostberg rounded out the middle of the WRC top ten.

Mini was having a good rally in their shakedown season, until overheating problems on the last day forced them out.

Up next - Germany.

Oh, and we're finally getting new BBC Top Gear episodes next week.
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Top Gear U.K. finally started airing it's new season here. :thumbsup:

Meanwhile, I had started watching the new season of Top Gear U.S., since I'd been going through withdrawal, and since my folks had watched an episode and thought it was funny. And either I was really desperate for car-centric humor, or they're doing a better job of ripping-off the original series, but it was a definite improvement over the abysmal mess I'd seen when they'd started. So, um... hat's off for doing an acceptable job! :roll:
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Been so busy at work (school year starts this coming Monday) that I forgot that I hadn't written up anything about Rally Germany - the first tarmac rally of the season.

Long story short - more drama between the two Sebastiens. Loeb was winning for something like the 8th or 9th time in Germany in a row, Citroën told Ogier to back off and let him (for championship points), and he didn't like it. Then Loeb got a flat which bumped him down to second place anyway, and Ogier was less than gracious about winning - his comment of "justice was done today" did not go over well.

Everyone else pretty much was out of the picture with various mechanical problems (mostly punctures from cutting corners), although Danny Sordo came away with a 3rd place for Mini - their first podium finish since returning to the sport.

I expect to see Ogier jump ship, probably to Volkswagen when they return to the sport in 2013. Unless Loeb retires by then, or unless Citroën lets Ogier start winning. The question is - can he win in something besides a factory-backed Citroën?

Next up - down under.
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Team orders are interesting things. At this past week's NASCAR race in Richmond Clint Boyer needed a win to advance to the chase for the championship (the first 26 races determine the 12 drivers who are eligible to win the championship based on the results of the last 10 races). However, his teammate Kevin Harvick (already locked into the chase) had a really strong car and was leading for most of the race. I wondered if Kevin was in first and Clint in second whether the team owner might suggest to Kevin to let Clint win. That's not the NASCAR way (about the only team orders are to not wreck your teammate), but it's about the only time I can see it occurring. It wasn't necessary though as Clint wasn't in second, but Kevin did win.
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Last weekend, they ran the highlights of the rally in Australia.

And apparently in honor of being "down under", Sebastien Loeb decided to flip his car over on the first day. This effectively took him out of the running for the weekend, presumably handing his teammate/rival Sebastien Ogier a huge chance for not only a win, but an opportunity to catch up in the driver's championship.

But then Ogier, apparently in honor of Australia having trees, decided to run his car into one, just a couple of stages after Loeb's barrel-roll.

So all that the Ford team of Hirvonen and Latvala had to do was basically not screw up, to take home a 1-2 finish, which they eventually did. So that put Hirvonen back in the running for the driver's championship.

Team tactics still played a role during the weekend, as Latvala was actually faster than Hirvonen, but on team orders, Latvala let him take the lead on the final day, since he had no hope of getting back in the champioship even if he'd won. Unlike the discord in the Citroën camp though, this was a truly team effort with a genuinely appreciative Hirvonen and supportive Latvala each giving the other their due after the race.

Team tactics played a role even with Citroën, too. After restarting with penalties, both Sebastiens had no hope of winning, but due to attrition, Ogier had clawed his way back into the #10 spot, which would have earned him a single point towards the championship. But Citroën made him back off and give even that up to Loeb, so it's pretty clear which Seb Citroën has decided to back for the remainder of the season. Even in the power stage, Ogier had to back off, so Loeb could have a chance to win that, which he did. So even while losing a lot of points to Hirvonen, Loeb managed to mitigate that by four points, which in the end, could make all the difference.

So the race is tightening up, but some of the remaining races are on tarmac, which has always been Loeb's strong suit. We'll see if Ford can rise to the challenge, now that they're back in the fight.

Next, the WRC returns to Loeb's hometown in France.
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Okay, so a few facts about Rally France:
  • Sebastien Loeb is from there. Not just France in general, but specifically from the area the rally is held. So he's completely at home there and familiar with the roads.
  • Sebastien Loeb has won in France five times. He owns that rally.
  • It's on tarmac. Until recently, Loeb was undefeated on tarmac, and that was only due to a puncture. He owns tarmac rallies.
  • Citroën has backed Loeb for the championship run over teammate Sebastien Ogier, so if it was close, Ogier would be ordered to back off in favor of Loeb.
  • There's no such thing as a sure thing.
So, the rally started out as expected, with Loeb turning in impressive times.

Then his engine went up in smoke. This is pretty unheard of for Citroën. The last time that happened to Loeb was 2007. He wasn't able to restart, because the car wasn't repairable in the time alloted.

So Loeb took away zero points this weekend.

Things were looking good for Mikko Hirvonen, who got quite a boost in the championship standings from Loeb's problems in Australia. But then he missed a corner, damaged something, and lost time dropping him down to sixth.

Meanwhile, at the top, Ogier, Petter Solberg and Daniel Sordo (in a Mini) began swapping the lead back and forth in some really exciting, close rallying. But a puncture would drop Solberg to third and leave him there. Meanwhile, Jari Matti Latvala and teammate Hirvonen had clawed up to fourth and fifth, respectively.

As in Australia, Latvala allowed Hirvonen to pass him for fourth (and more championship points), this time by incurring a time penalty by showing up early to a checkpoint. This, by the way, is precisely why I'm always late for everything. ;)

In the power stage, Latvala was allowed to go all out to try and win it, in order to take points from Ogier, which he did (since Hirvonen wasn't quite on pace to do it himself). But Ogier ended up winning the overall rally, with Sordo taking second (Mini's highest finish), Solberg in third, and Hirvonen in fourth. All this would still leave Loeb in first, with Hirvonen and Ogier tied three points back for the championship with two rallies left to go.

It would... except after the rally, Solberg's car was found to be 4 kg underweight, and he was disqualified, giving Hirvonen three more points.

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So now, it's anybody's game.

The next race is in Spain, which is Sordo's home turf, so the leaders have to contend with him, and the Minis are proving to be fast cars. Plus, it's a mixed rally, with the opening day on gravel, and Loeb has road-sweeping duties. So what will Ogier do? What will Ogier be asked to do? Can Hirvonen step up? Can Latvala help play the spoiler to Citroën?

It's going to be an interesting finish.
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Ahhh... to be young and impractical again.

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The Subaru version of their joint venture with Toyota is finally going to be revealed at the Tokyo auto show.

Or the L.A. Auto Show.

One of them. I think the concept version will be at the L.A. show, and the production version will be shown a few weeks later in Tokyo.

It's called the BRZ. So... "Breeze"?

Anyway, sounds like a fun ride. Car & Driver digs it. So does Top Gear (and they haven't even driven it yet).
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This weekend brought the results from Rally Spain, and after a few rough weeks, saw Loeb return to top form.

The first day of the rally was run on gravel, which usually means road-sweeping duties. Normally, this would put Loeb at a disadvantage, but the roads were so incredibly dusty, that the drivers who followed him were effectively blinded, so he still managed to be ahead at the end of the first day.

The second two days were all tarmac, on which Loeb is nearly unbeatable. Latvala put in a stellar performance, but again was asked to step down to allow Hirvonen to gain second place. Ogier had two punctures which dropped him back in the standings, but a blown engine on the third day put him out of the race, and out of the championship.

The Minis availed themselves nicely picking up fourth and fifth places, including first and second on the Power Stage, due to choosing the right tires for the conditions (although the tires hadn't worked so well for them earlier, because the expected rain hadn't shown up on time).

So we head into Wales for the final race, with Hirvonen just eight points back. I'm kind of rooting for Loeb though, because he's persisted through the whole season despite conflicts within his own team, and frankly, even though Hirvonen is one of the top four or five rally drivers in the world, he simply hasn't driven well enough consistently to be #1. If it weren't for his teammate Latvala driving so well and handing him extra championship points, he'd be well out of the running by now. But, as Latvala himself pointed out, it is a team sport, and there are tactics on all sides. Plus, they're trying to secure a deal with Ford, and there are a lot of jobs on the line. So even though Citroën has the manufacturer's championship wrapped up, the driver's championship wouldn't be a bad consolation. If Hirvonen can win the rally and the Power Stage, he can still pull off the championship. The Power Stage - a new addition this year - could end up making all the difference.

Next year, I think the driver to watch will be Latvala. He's been blistering fast, and actually improving a lot the second half this year, especially on tarmac. If not for a run of bad luck, he'd be pushing Loeb for the Championship. He'd been fast before, but reckless. Now it seems he's harnessed that speed and figured out how to control it.
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Don't know if anyone is reading this or following the WRC, but the final rally in Wales aired last weekend.

To recap, for those coming in late:
  • Citroën has two drivers named Sebastien - Loeb (7-time world champion) and newcomer Ogier. Despite Loeb's seniority, Citroën brought the two drivers in this year on equal footing, giving them both the opportunity to compete for the driver's World Championship. They rescinded this mid-season and backed Loeb, putting Ogier in the supporting role. This did not sit will with Ogier, and caused a lot of tension in the team. But Loeb was more consistent and had a commanding lead, while Ogier ran into some problems effectively taking him out of the running anyway. Near the end of the season, Loeb faltered in a few races allowing Ford driver Mikko Hirvonen to catch up.
  • Ford's Hirvonen has challenged Loeb for the championship before, and lost in the final race of the season a couple of years ago. He didn't have a great season this year, but had a good enough season that with help from his teammate Jarri-Mati Latvala, he was able to amass enough points so that if he won the final rally, he (or more to the point, Ford) would be able to win the driver's championship.
  • Latvala, meanwhile, turned in a stellar second-half of the season. He'd been fast before, but now he'd coupled speed with maturity (and a newfound speed on tarmac), and was a force to be reckoned with. But because of playing the support role, he'd been denied the opportunity to challenge for any wins this season.
  • Ford has yet to commit to participate in the 2012 season. Negotiations are underway, but nothing has been finalized, which sort of leaves Ford up in the air at the moment. They really need a positive end to the season to have the incentive to move forward next year.
  • Ogier and Loeb both recently signed two-year contracts with Citroën, so they're going to have to figure out a way to work together. Although Loeb may retire at the end of his contract, so maybe Ogier would wait him out and become the #1 driver then. But there have been rumors Ogier might leave before then...
  • Mini returned to rallying for the first time in years, with a limited campaign. This was by all accounts successful as the Minis proved to be very competitive, once a few mechanical and setup issues were sorted out. Next year they'll campaign for a full season, giving Citroën and Ford even more competition.
  • VW is returning to the WRC. They're still in the development stage (just recently rolling out a prototype VW Polo), and won't be competing until the 2013 season. But they've been shopping around for drivers...
That brings us up to the final rally in Wales.

Now, I figured it would probably go something like this: Loeb would win, and Hirvonen just wouldn't be able to match his pace. Ogier would probably try to keep Hirvonen at bay, and Latvala would again play the supporting role.

Not quite.

Wales is run over four days. Within minutes of the first stage, Ogier spun, hitting a curb, ripping the back wheel off his car. He was done. While he'd eventually restart, he was no longer a factor.

By the morning of the second day, Hirvonen had been driving like a man possessed, and had actually eked out a lead over Loeb. Maybe this was going to be a battle right down to the wire after all.

But then, while driving between huge stacks of lumber (through a logging area), Hirvonen spun. He didn't hit the huge stacks of logs. In fact, he took on very little apparent damage. His car got poked with a stick. In the radiator.

He was able to continue, but the radiator drained, and with no way to fix it, it cooked and killed his engine. Since you can't replace engines and restart the rally (you can repair most everything else and restart with a time penalty), he was done. And so the drama was over, the season was over, the championship was over. Not much else to watch, right?

But then there was Latvala. With no reason to be in the supporting role anymore, he chased down and overtook Loeb. Now at this point, the championship was in the bag for Loeb, so he didn't have to win. But with nothing to lose either, he didn't have to play it safe and could just go flat out for the victory, which would be a great cap to the season. But he just couldn't match Latvala's speed, and at the beginning of the fourth and final day, Latvala was just ahead of Loeb. While it had no impact on the championship, it was certainly a matter of pride for both drivers. So it was turning into an exciting race anyway.

Then, the completely improbable happened. Loeb crashed. But not on the course. He ran into a spectator's car on one of the road sections between stages. He punctured his radiator, and was out of the rally. This gave the victory to Latvala (who was well on his way to earning it anyway), but more interestingly... is that if Hirvonen hadn't crashed, he would have been handed the championship! Bizarre way to wrap up the season.

So Latvala, who had been showing great form recently, won the final rally of the year. He's looking like a definite contender for next year, especially in light of Hirvonen's inconsistency. But Hirvonen did get second place in the championship, so he'd definitely be part of Ford's plans.

Meanwhile, Loeb won the championship, and Ogier crashed out, so Loeb would still be Citroën's #1 next year, and Ogier would probably be the supporter again. Right?


At the very end of the broadcast, there was one final, jaw-dropping twist, that happened right after the rally ended:

Ogier quit Citroën, and was hired by VW (which I predicted back in September).

But that wasn't the twist.

Ogier's replacement at Citroën?

Mikko Hirvonen.
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Forgot to mention, the WRC Academy (which doesn't get nearly as much coverage) had a pretty amazing finish to the season, too.

Egon Kaur was leading going into the final rally, ahead of Craig Breen. The scoring works differently in the WRC Academy, with bonus points being given for each stage win.

Down by 20 points, the only way for Breen to catch Kaur, was to win nearly every stage of the two-day event.

And he did just that. He got the fastest times in 9 out of 11 stages on Friday, and 5 of 6 on Saturday. It all came down to the final stage, but Breen won that one too, and the inaugural WRC Academy Championship with a tie, by virtue of the fact he'd won more stages over the course of the season.

And he won a 500,000 Euro scholarship to forward his WRC career, too. Nice work if you can get it.

In the PWRC, despite a field mostly comprised of Mitsubishis, two Subarus came out on top in the final championship standings. Which, of course, is how it should be. :P
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'kay... so last post about the BRZ.

In this thread. :ponder:

The last pics I posted were obviously just a render. But there are plenty of real pics out there from the L.A. Auto Show. This was an STi (Subaru's performance division) concept version of the BRZ (which, by the way, stands for Boxer engine, Rear-wheel-drive, er... Z):

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Then today at the Tokyo Auto Show, they revealed the real deal - the production version (startled Japanese onlooker not included):

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Also spiffy! Not quite as ostentatious, but still very cool looking. It's being compared to the Mazda Miata in terms of being a fun, responsive little car to zip around in.

And, if it's anything else like the Miata, it means I'm about 6" too tall to fit in one. :roll:

The specs are pretty decent - 200 hp, super-low center of gravity, and at just a hair under 2700 pounds it should fairly scream around corners. Rumor has it that Subaru (or maybe Toyota, who are also selling a version of this) may make a higher performance version, later.

Meanwhile, if you're looking for something a little faster, there's always the 300 hp SuperGT race version:

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