The heat is on for McRae and Ford Martini team
After seven rallies in just over four months during which four different manufacturers have enjoyed the spoils of victory, the FIA World Rally Championship moves into the second half of the season on Greece's Acropolis Rally (6 - 9 June) with drivers and teams alike hoping to capture the form which would make them title favourites.
Ford Martini World Rally Team duo Colin McRae and Nicky Grist are already winners in Kenya and Portugal. They will aim to emphasise their championship credentials, and that of their Ford Focus World Rally Car, by becoming the first to achieve a hat-trick of wins this season amid the heat, dust, and rocky gravel tracks of one of the sport's traditional classics.
The Acropolis is a rally where it is not just the cars that require additional preparation. Strength, fitness and the will to continue pushing hard when intense heat and demanding special stages conspire to drain drivers' energy are a pre-requisite for anyone chasing success.
"You shouldn't feel any more tired at the end of a day on the Acropolis than any other rally if you've done you're training properly," said 30-year-old McRae, currently third in the drivers' championship. "So long as you maintain the right level of fluid during the day and you're fit you will be OK, but if you haven't prepared properly then this is a rally where it will be all too obvious.
"Getting ready for a rally like this is the same for a driver as for the car. We'll test the Ford Focus on rough roads and in the heat to check it's ready and I'll train in the high temperatures in Greece for three or four days before the event to make sure I'm fully acclimatised as well. Although the Safari Rally in Kenya is probably hotter, you don't drive flat out all the time. The Acropolis is more of a sprint event where you drive at your limits on every stage so it's difficult to judge which is the harder," added the Scot.
Thomas Rådstrom and Fred Gallagher will drive the second Ford Martini car, the pair fresh from sixth place in last month's Rally Argentina. The 33-year-old Swedish driver has plenty of experience of the Greek stages. "I've competed on this rally three times before and I know the rugged terrain well so I'm absolutely looking forward to it. The Ford Focus has proved it's good on this type of rally and we enjoyed a good drive in Argentina, where the roads were as rough as Greece in places, so I'm confident we can go well," said Rådstrom.
"The Rally Argentina, my first true gravel rally in the car, enabled me to fine tune the car more to my liking. In particular we worked on the differential settings to adjust the handling and feel of the Focus to suit my driving style," he added.
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson promised a 'big attack' from both drivers. "Colin has twice won the rally, including last year's event, and Thomas has been there before and finished in the points so both are more than capable of doing well. We've proved that the Ford Focus is a winner on this type of surface and we'll go there looking for nothing less than a podium place," he said.
Searing temperatures, often well above 30°C, will pose the biggest challenge to the Ford Martini engineers. Although temperatures are comparable to Kenya's Safari Rally, providing adequate cooling to key areas of the car is, ironically, a greater problem in Greece. Many hairpins, long uphill sections and rock-strewn gravel tracks mean average speeds are lower than the Safari and there is less engine, transmission and brake cooling due to reduced airflow.
Engineers have spent two days at Ford's state-of-the-art wind tunnel in Cologne, Germany, used in the development of the company's new road models, examining ways of improving the ducting under the bonnet to make the most of the limited airflow.
"In Greece the secret is to know the limits of the engine and the transmission and make sure you run as close to those limits as possible without crossing them," said Ford Martini team project leader Guenther Steiner. "This event is definitely one of the toughest after the Safari and the most testing in Europe for the cars."
The small resort of Aggi Theodori, west of Athens along the coast road to Corinth, is the new base for the rally. This year, for the first time, there is a heavy concentration of stages in the Attika region, closer to Athens than before. Both Legs 1 and 3 are centred here, but the middle leg heads further north-west around the towns of Itea and Gravia, incorporating classic Acropolis stages such as Bauxites Way and Drimea.
The Acropolis Rally is steeped in history as one of the classic events of the championship, but the 1999 version is moving into rallying's new era. Contrasting with the traditional start at the Parthenon, high above the ancient city of Athens, is an ultra-modern super special stage, used to begin the competitive action for the first time in the rally's 46-year history. The first and last legs comprise essentially the same stages, but the middle leg is the toughest of all, more than double the length of any other day and lasting more than 15 hours. In all, drivers will tackle 21 stages, covering 413km in a total route of 1,400km.