Ford's final appearance of the FIA World Rally Championship season on next week's Rally of Great Britain also brings to an end the illustrious competition career of the legendary Ford Escort as a works rally car. The 13th and final round of the 1998 championship marks the last official appearance of the Escort at the sport's highest level after a 30-year career in which the car has won almost all of the world's great rallies.
In 1999, the Ford World Rally team will introduce the exciting all-new Ford Focus World Rally Car to the sport. So British fans have the opportunity to witness the final works rally Escorts, the Valvoline-backed Escort World Rally Cars of Juha Kankkunen and Bruno Thiry, in action on the three-day event which begins in Cheltenham on Sunday.
After a spectacular debut year when Ford won the World Championship for Makes in 1968 with the Mk 1 Escort Twin Cam, few people would begrudge an emotional victory for either four-times world champion Kankkunen or Thiry when the 1,175-mile rally ends back at Cheltenham on Tuesday 24 November.
"After almost 50 wins in world championship and world class rallies since 1968, this is really the final bow for the Escort as a works car," said Martin Whitaker, Director of Ford European Motorsport. "I've grown up in motorsport alongside the Escort. When I first became involved in the sport the car was winning rallies around the world, and now, in this its final season, it's still competing strongly at the very highest level of the sport.
"Where better for the Escort to end its career than here in Britain, on a rally it dominated to such an extent that it won for eight consecutive years from 1972 to 1979. It would be a fitting end if either Juha or Bruno could put the car on the winners' podium for one final time and we'll hold nothing back in trying to achieve that," added Whitaker.
For Ford World Rally team director Malcolm Wilson, the rally, which once again counts most of its competitive mileage over the gravel roads of the Welsh forests, will be an emotional occasion.
"I started my career in rallying by driving a Mk1 Escort and since then I've driven every Escort model used by Ford in the sport," said Wilson, who was Ford's chief test driver and drove for the manufacturer himself in the World Championship. "Ford Escorts are in my blood and I must admit that when the rally starts I will feel quite sad to think it's the last official outing for the Escort. But those thoughts will be tempered by the exciting prospect of the Ford Focus World Rally Car, which is already well into a major testing programme in readiness for the 1999 championship."
Kankkunen, co-driven by fellow Finn Juha Repo, and Thiry, co-driven by Stephane Prevot, both have good experience of the event, formerly known as the RAC Rally. Kankkunen has won three times while his Belgian team-mate finished an excellent third on his British debut in 1994 at the wheel of an Escort Cosworth.
Swapping the smooth asphalt of Britain's race circuits for the rather more rougher gravel tracks will be Ford's British Touring Car Championship driver Will Hoy, who will pilot a two-wheel drive Escort RS2000 on only his third rally. Despite his inexperience at this level, the Londoner does have a rallying pedigree. In February he trounced a combination of professional rally drivers, fellow BTCC stars and celebrities to win the Silverstone Rallysprint Celebrity TV Challenge.
Hoy, who will be co-driven by Sean Kelly in a Boland Motorsport-prepared Escort, said of his forthcoming adventure: "This is unfinished business. In 1994 I entered the RAC Rally for the first time but crashed on the opening day. This time I'm determined to finish so the plan is to drive neat and tidily, gain more experience of driving quickly on slippery and slimy special stages and have some fun.
"Rallying is obviously a discipline I'm not used to. Circuit racing is such a precise art in which finding the right driving line is crucial. Rallying is the opposite because the car is moving around so much and I don't under-estimate the challenge ahead. I know I can drive a rally car quickly but I need to be able to do that consistently under constantly changing conditions," added the 1991 BTCC champion, whose Escort is backed by Infogrames.
Finland's Sebastian Lindholm and Jukka Aho will drive a Gazprom-backed Escort World Rally Car, the former Finnish champion representing the Russian team in the FIA Teams Cup. The Rally of Great Britain will be Lindholm's second appearance for the team following an excellent debut on the Rally Australia earlier this month when he finished ninth.
British Junior Rally champions Stuart and Steve Egglestone will also be Escort-mounted on the rally. The Penrith-based brothers will be in a Chris Birkbeck Rallysport-built Escort RS2000 for the first time, hoping to further their reputation as one of Britain's brightest young rally partnerships.
The three-day Rally of Great Britain starts in Cheltenham on Sunday 22 November at 07.20. After 13 special stages covering 44.08 miles in the south Midlands, the drivers return to the town for the first overnight halt at 20.03. They restart on Monday 23 November at 05.00 for eight more stages on the flowing gravel tracks of the mid-Wales forests, arriving back at Cheltenham at 21.48 after 88.85 competitive miles. The third and final leg is the longest and most difficult of the rally. The drivers leave the town at 05.00 the following morning and seven more stages covering 103.38 miles lie in wait in the south Wales forests before the finish ceremony back in Cheltenham at 16.58.