Ford bids for third straight win on Acropolis Rally. Boulder-strewn mountain tracks and searing temperatures which ideally suit nothing more than lying on a beach are the trademark challenges which Ford Rallye Sport's drivers must face on...
Ford bids for third straight win on Acropolis Rally.
Boulder-strewn mountain tracks and searing temperatures which ideally suit nothing more than lying on a beach are the trademark challenges which Ford Rallye Sport's drivers must face on Greece's Acropolis Rally (13 - 16 June). The event, regarded as the toughest European rally of all and the midpoint of this year's FIA World Rally Championship, is one of the sport's classics and provides the extreme conditions in which the team's Focus RS World Rally Car excels.
High summer in Greece brings air temperatures of almost 40*C, in-car temperatures peak at more than 60*C and the punishment inflicted on cars by rocks make the Acropolis a harsh test of reliability for drivers, cars and team mechanics who have the task of repairing any damage caused by the unforgiving terrain.
However, Ford's Colin McRae and Nicky Grist have won in Greece for the past two seasons and a string of podium placings for the team here and in the equally rough Cyprus Rally, confirms the belief that the Focus RS revels in hostile environments.
The extraordinary finale to last month's Rally Argentina - with two post-rally disqualifications - enabled Ford's Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya to claim a record equalling 24th world rally win and the team to strengthen its hold on second place in the manufacturers' championship and close on leaders Peugeot. The Spaniards' Acropolis record is formidable. They claimed their maiden world rally victory there in 1990 and now have three victories and four runners-up positions to their credit.
"It's a rally I enjoy and a very different event from the mechanical aspect," said Sainz, who lies third in the drivers' championship. "Given our performance in Cyprus we should be fully competitive in Greece and from the championship perspective, that's important. This rally and the next one in Kenya are crucial to our title hopes.
"We made some small improvements to the car in testing after Argentina but I don't think they will make any noticeable difference until the championship moves away from the rough gravel rallies to the smoother events again in August," he added.
Third place for McRae in Argentina added impetus to his title challenge, although the 33-year-old Scot accepts he needs to make the most of the Acropolis and Kenya's even tougher Safari Rally. "The Focus goes well in these rougher conditions. We led from the start in Cyprus until our accident and I think Greece is even more suited to the car because the speeds are higher and therefore it's even tougher on the cars.
"If luck hadn't been on our side in Argentina our title chances in both the drivers' and manufacturers' championships would have been pretty grim. But the results changed and things are healthier. However, it's essential we come away from the Acropolis and Safari with at least one win and I hope we can get that in Greece," said McRae.
Markko Märtin and Michael Park drive a third Ford Rallye Sport Focus RS, eager to capitalise on fourth place in Argentina - their best world rally result. Their previous best was fifth in Greece in a privately-entered car in 1999.
"The rally didn't seem as rough last year which I'm happy with because I'm not a big fan of rough rallies," said Märtin. "The Acropolis is a question of finding a pace to match the conditions but having said that I think the Focus is capable of taking the rocks in its stride."
Märtin rounded off a five-day test in Spain at the end of last month which also included Sainz and McRae. His task was to test the strength of the Focus. "I tried to break the car on the rough roads but couldn't. It hurt me more than the car. The next morning I had a few aches but the car was fine," he said.
Germany's Armin Kremer and Dieter Schneppenheim will drive a Focus RS for the first time on gravel. "We had a good gravel test in Germany some weeks ago when we tried various differential and damper settings which we'll fine tune at the shakedown test," said Kremer. "The car handled really well. We'll try not to risk too much in the rally. My aim is to finish the first leg in the top 15, so that I can profit from a good start position the next day."
In The Spotlight
The heat places huge demands on drivers and co-drivers and physical fitness is of paramount importance here more than on any other rally. Team doctor Simon Morris said a good level of background fitness was vital for drivers to maintain peak performance in such extreme conditions for three days.
"The fitter a driver, the longer he will delay the effects of the heat," he said. "Regular showering at the service parks will help maintain a stable body temperature as well as keep drivers mentally alert. Diet and fluid intake is also crucial. A balanced diet will ensure most nutrients are taken on board through eating. But we give the drivers special energy drinks to give them additional salts and they will drink about 15 litres a day to replace the fluid lost through sweat and to maintain body weight. That's about three times the normal intake."
Athens' Zappion Palace, in the heart of the city, once again hosts the ceremonial start on Thursday evening. However, the rally covers traditional territory to the north-west, this year overnighting each day at the single service park of Lilea - Parnassos, near Amfissa. The route circles around the Parnassos mountains, but avoids the stages to the south at Stiri and Livadia. The second day threatens to be the toughest, containing 158.76km of competition although the event's penultimate test offers little opportunity to ease off as it is the longest of the rally at more than 37km. It finishes in Itea after 391.50km of competition in a route of 1197.85km.