Greece's Acropolis Rally marks the midpoint of the FIA World Rally Championship season and while everyone involved with the Ford Martini team could be forgiven for wishing to switch to 'holiday mode', there will be no opportunity for that on one...
Greece's Acropolis Rally marks the midpoint of the FIA World Rally Championship season and while everyone involved with the Ford Martini team could be forgiven for wishing to switch to 'holiday mode', there will be no opportunity for that on one of the toughest rounds of the 14-event series.
For drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist and team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya, the Greek event offers physical challenges that can only be successfully combated by the fittest of athletes. And for engineers and mechanics, ensuring the Ford Focus World Rally Cars of McRae and Sainz operate to full potential in such a hostile environment is the all-encompassing task.
In-car temperatures of up to 50C combined with a rocky and rutted road surface covering twisty gravel mountain tracks ensure no let-up for anyone. Sainz and McRae are keen to get back on the points-scoring trail after retiring from the Rally Argentina when on course for top three finishes.
"Our pace in Argentina was strong and that's made me more confident for the Acropolis," said Sainz. "It's one of my favourite rallies and brings back good memories for me. I won my first world championship rally there in 1990 and have won in three different cars, the last time with Ford in 1997. I've also finished second three times so I have good experience of the event.
"It's a hard rally and the rough stages and high temperatures will take their toll. But I still think it's an event where you have to drive flat-out from the start. I think there's no alternative on any European rally under the new format. The first morning will be very hard as we must drive three stages covering more than 55km with no opportunity to service in between. It will be crucial not to hit problems there," added the 37-year-old Madrid-based Sainz.
McRae has twice tasted the winners' champagne in Greece, in 1996 and 1998, and is keen to do so again in 2000. "I feel confident that our chances of a top finish for Ford are very good," commented McRae. "But a big question will be what speed can the Subaru manage on this terrain? Judging by our own pace in Greece last year and the way the Focus is going in 2000, we are going to be extremely competitive.
"The reliability situation with Ford is getting much, much better - Argentina was sheer bad luck - so I'm looking forward to challenging for victory. The really rough stages of Day 1 last year have been replaced, so the stages should be a bit smoother and success will depend on getting the car set-up right and driving as fast as possible without worrying over the roughness. It's physically one of the toughest rallies, but it's an event I enjoy very much. It's tough on driver and car, but meeting that challenge is exciting."
Petter Solberg and Phil Mills will drive a third Ford-entered Focus World Rally Car, the first time the pair has tackled the rally. "We completed the recce last year but I can't remember too much about the stages," admitted Solberg. "My main memory is that the roads were rough with many rocks and it was very hot so I'm sure we can expect the same.
"The heat is a big factor because the drivers have to wear full flameproof overalls this year and they are very hot in normal conditions. I think we will be testing development parts for the future so my main aim is to get the car to the finish and make the most of the opportunity for myself and the team," added the 25-year-old Norwegian.
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson has good memories of the rally, Sainz and Juha Kankkunen providing Ford with a one-two finish in 1997. "It's usually a dry rally and our performance in Argentina in similar conditions was very good so we can feel confident about our pace," he said. "But Greece throws up another challenge in terms of the abrasive road surface and the heat. It's our job to ensure we can overcome those challenges and if we can do that then I'm sure we will be in a good points-scoring position at the finish."
Air temperatures climbing above 30C pose the biggest difficulty for Ford Martini engineers. Tight hairpin bends, long uphill climbs and rocky roads keep speeds low and lessen the airflow to key areas of the car. This reduced cooling ensures engine and transmission temperatures remain higher than even Kenya's Safari Rally, where speeds are greater.
Although the Acropolis may be about to lose its crown as the roughest European event in the championship to the newly-incorporated Cyprus Rally, that does not make conditions in Greece any easier for Ford Martini's tyre partner Michelin. It is a punishing event for tyres and Michelin's dilemma is to combat tyre wear on the most abrasive stages.
It is tempting to use harder wearing rubber but a harder compound lessens grip. This generates more wheel spin and consequently more wear. So the challenge is to produce durable rubber which offers good grip to prevent the wheels from spinning on the hard and rocky surface. The route offers little compensation. Three groups of stages, a total of seven tests, are run twice and conditions will deteriorate significantly after the first passage.
Although the rally has switched its base to the coastal resort of Itea, the tradition of the rally starting at the Parthenon, high above the ancient city of Athens, from which the event takes its name, remains. After an opening day tackling stages north and west of the capital, the event moves out to Itea and the final two legs cover traditional Acropolis territory on tests closely packed to the north, based around Parnassos. The second leg is the longest of all, with almost 160km of stages lying in wait. Drivers will face 403.71km of tests in a total route of 1407.56km.
ROUND 7 FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP
9 - 11 JUNE 2000
Friday 9 June: Leg 1 Athens - Itea
Start Athens 09.30 SS1 Skourta 20.02km 11.40 SS2 Klidi 15.48km 12.11 SS3 Thiva 20.12km 12.42 SS4 Kineta 15.52km 15.40 SS5 Agii Theodoroi 31.11km 16.05 Finish Itea 20.05 Total 102.25km
Saturday 10 June: Leg 2 Itea - Itea
Start Itea 07.30 SS6 Zeli 28.32km 09.47 SS7 Mendenitsa 1 28.05km 10.47 SS8 Paleohori - Eleftherohori1 10.71km 12.27 SS9 Gravia 1 25.56km 13.08 SS10 Elatos 1 10.56km 13.47 SS11 Zeli 2 28.32km 15.59 SS12 Mendenitsa 2 28.05km 16.59 Finish Itea 19.43 Total 159.57km
Sunday 11 June: Leg 3 Itea - Itea
Start Itea 07.30 SS13 Pavliani 1 24.71km 09.27 SS14 Stromi - Inohori 1 22.82km 10.10 SS15 Paleohori - Elefhterohori 2 10.71km 11.48 SS16 Gravia 2 25.56km 12.29 SS17 Elatos 2 10.56km 13.08 SS18 Pavliani 2 24.71km 15.00 SS19 Stromi - Inohori 2 22.82km 15.43 Finish Itea 18.00 Total 141.89km
Rally Total 403.71km