This weekend's Lauberhorn downhill is considered one of the toughest races on the entire World Cup circuit. It is the longest course in men's skiing and boasts the fastests straights and the slowest corners.
The classic Lauberhorn downhill is considered one of the toughest races on the entire World Cup circuit. It is the longest course in men's skiing, boasting very fast straights like the Hannegg section, where skiers reach speeds of up to 150km an hour, and slow passages like the Brüggli corner, where racers must slam on the brakes to slow to around 70km an hour.
The pre-race favourite is as always Austria's Hermann Maier, who has dominated the ski slopes for the past three years. He has missed the podium just once in 11 races this season. The Lauberhorn's wildly varying course is not really tailored to the aggressive style of the man they call "The Herminator". But that has not stopped Maier finding success at Wengen in the past. He won the ski classic two years ago and has never finished lower than fourth. Rather ominously he has set the best time in the final training session for the downhill.
If Maier does not do the business, the winner could very easily be another member of Austria's powerful squad. Josef Strobl and Stephan Eberharter posted the second and third fastest times in training. Another strong contender is Italy's Kristian Ghedina, who set the fourth fastest time. He has won the event twice, in 1995 and 1997, and he could take the lead away from Maier in the battle for the overall downhill title by completing the Lauberhorn hat-trick.
Switzerland's best hopes are pinned on Didier Cuche who stands a good chance of scoring the first home win since William Besse sparked nationwide celebrations by crossing first in 1994. But Cuche is unhappy about modifications made to the course this year. In a bid to increase safety race officials have added more turns, forcing racers to slow down.
"I was very disappointed in training, " said Cuche. "You do not stop turning. I do not mind turning, but you lose the true spirit of the downhill".
Most impartial observers will be hoping that Maier does not win. The head of the International Ski Federation, Gian Franco Kasper, summed up the popular mood recently when he expressed concern that the World Cup had become boring.
"Too many Austrians are in front, it is not good for television ratings, " lamented Kasper.
By Michael Mullane
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