World championship leader BP-Ford faces up to Greek rigours After claiming its third win of the FIA World Rally Championship season in Italy earlier this month, BP-Ford World Rally Team takes its lead of both the manufacturers' and drivers'...
World championship leader BP-Ford faces up to Greek rigours
After claiming its third win of the FIA World Rally Championship season in Italy earlier this month, BP-Ford World Rally Team takes its lead of both the manufacturers' and drivers' series to Greece next week for the toughest challenge of the season. The Acropolis Rally of Greece (31 May - 3 June) ends the opening half of the campaign and after the rigours posed by extreme heat and rocky mountain tracks, drivers and teams will be ready for their two-month summer break.
The Ford Focus RS World Rally Car has an awesome record in Greece where success demands a blend of strength, reliability and speed. Five wins during the past seven seasons, including victory last year for current championship leaders Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen, have earmarked the Focus RS as the dominant car on one of the season's classic events.
A 1-2 in Italy for Gronholm and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, BP-Ford's second of the season, means the team goes to Athens with a 21-point lead in the manufacturers' championship it won in 2006. Double world champion Gronholm holds a seven-point advantage in the drivers' standings.
The Acropolis Rally's gravel speed tests have a fearsome reputation. Cars must withstand severe punishment from loose rocks which become exposed in the mountain tracks as well as hard bedrock which forms the base of the roads. Add in air temperatures which usually top 30C and place high demands on engines and gearboxes, which receive little cooling from the through-flow of air, and it is not hard to see why the Acropolis is such a huge challenge.
Drivers, too, can expect a tough time. There is no cooling inside the cars during the special stages so cockpit temperatures are high and physical fitness plays a crucial role. Ensuring a regular fluid intake is also vital to stave off dehydration and ensure drivers and co-drivers can operate at peak performance over the long tests.
Thirty-nine-year-old Gronholm is preparing for his ninth Acropolis start and the Finn's confidence was boosted by his second win of the season in Italy. "Victory in Italy put me back into the lead of the championship. The next two rallies give me the opportunity to build on that lead. The Acropolis is traditionally a strong event for Ford while the first event after the summer break in Finland is my home event so I really want to capitalise on those," he said.
"It's a hard event for both drivers and cars. The weather during our test this week has been cold, muddy and wet. It is forecast to turn warmer and drier in time for the rally but in the shaded areas where the surface is often clay-based, mud patches may remain. That will be strange for Greece. My confidence is good and I really want to take the fight to Loeb as I did in Italy," he added.
Hirvonen lies third in the drivers' standings, just four points from second place. The 26-year-old Finn claimed his fifth podium of the season in Italy and was encouraged by improved pace which moved him closer to the speed set by championship pacesetters Gronholm and Sebastien Loeb. "That was one of my targets in Italy and I want to keep that momentum going in Greece next week. If Marcus and Sebastien are battling for the lead, I want to be as close to them as possible," said Hirvonen.
"Last year's Acropolis was incredibly rough so I have to be prepared for that again. The stages were rocky and rutted and if they are in the same condition this year, then my car will take plenty of punishment. The obvious option is to ease off during the roughest sections but the pace of rallies now is so high that a driver can't afford to do that. You have to drive flat out everywhere. But the Focus is a strong car so I don't have any worries," added Hirvonen.
* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force gravel tyre for the hard-wear loose surface roads. The pattern is relatively compact to ensure a maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the ground for the best possible grip and traction. The grooves can be hand cut to open them if there is a lot of loose gravel on the road surface or if the tracks become muddy. The tyres will be available in medium and hard compound rubber. The rally is the only gravel event where two patterns are allowed so the team has also nominated the g-Force gravel H1, which has an identical pattern to the conventional choice but is wider.
* The team prepared for the event with a scheduled four-day test near Livadia in central Greece, which was due to end today (Friday). Hirvonen drove the first day in a mixture of wet and dry conditions. But heavy rain fell during the second day and the team decided there was nothing to be gained by tyre testing in conditions unrepresentative of the Acropolis and the day was cancelled. Gronholm then drove for one day and was happy with improvements to the suspension and engine response. With the wet weather continuing, the final day was also called off. Following the rally the team will test for four days on gravel roads in northern Spain.
* After his test in Spain, Gronholm will attend the Barcelona Motor Show on Thursday 7 June for the launch of Ford Spain's limited edition Focus WRC S, a three-door road car with Focus ST exterior aerodynamics and TDCi engine.
The route is broadly similar to 2006 with the base again in Athens. However, as the Olympic Stadium was unavailable due to the Champions League soccer final, the Olympic Equestrian Centre at Markopoulo is the new base. It is home to the service park and three runs over a purpose-built 3.20km super special stage on Thursday and Saturday evenings and Sunday lunchtime. The opening leg heads north-west of the city, much of it on roads familiar from last year, and also includes a short test on the very edge of the service park. The second leg is the longest of the event. It heads west of Athens for a mix of old and new tests and includes two 15-minute remote service points in Loutraki. The final day is again based to the north-west of Athens before the finish at Markopoulo after the super special stage. Drivers tackle 21 tests covering 334.44km in a route of 1572.33km.