Ford and McRae seek Spanish hat-trick in Focus Successive victories for Colin McRae and Nicky Grist in Kenya and Portugal have thrust the Ford Martini World Rally Team firmly into the title race as the FIA World Rally Championship heads to Spain...
Ford and McRae seek Spanish hat-trick in Focus
Successive victories for Colin McRae and Nicky Grist in Kenya and Portugal have thrust the Ford Martini World Rally Team firmly into the title race as the FIA World Rally Championship heads to Spain for the first true all-asphalt event of the season.
Having proved its capabilities with sensational performances on vastly differing surfaces during the opening four rounds of the championship, the new Ford Focus World Rally Car will be put under the spotlight during the Catalunya Rally (19 - 21 April) on the only surface on which it has yet to demonstrate its potential.
McRae, chasing a second drivers' crown, and Ford Martini lie second in the world championship standings, victory on the gravel roads of Portugal last month having earmarked both as serious championship challengers in what is still regarded by the team as a development year for the radical new Ford Focus.
"Catalunya will be the last tell-tale 'new' rally for the Focus," said McRae. "We've proved how quick it is on ice, snow, rocky tracks and gravel. Now the only question left is how good it will be on an all-asphalt rally. Catalunya will tell us. We tested in Spain earlier this month, concentrating on finding a good set-up and the results were positive, our times comparing favourably with testing on the same roads last year.
"Although the Focus is still heavier than our rivals, the team has reduced the weight significantly since Portugal and I'm confident we can finish in a podium position again. Additional weight is more important on this rally than on any so far because of the effect it has on tyres. They are the only point of contact with the road so extra weight puts more strain on the rubber, especially on the front," added 30-year-old McRae.
Simon Jean-Joseph will drive the second Focus, the Martinique-based asphalt expert making only his second championship appearance for the Ford Martini team (and only his third in total) following his debut in Monte Carlo. Fred Gallagher will co-drive.
"I think the Focus is getting better all the time," added 29-year-old Jean-Joseph. "Since I competed in Monte Carlo the engine, gearbox and driveability have all improved and the car feels very stable, which is exactly what you need for an asphalt event. This is my first Catalunya Rally but my previous competition experience has been on wet or dry asphalt rather than the ice and snow covered asphalt in Monte Carlo so conditions in Spain should suit me better.
"Because I've not driven the rally before, one of the biggest difficulties will be to develop a good set of pace notes with so little opportunity to practice. On a three-day recce period we'll have one run through the stages to make the notes and two more runs to check them so it won't be easy," added Jean-Joseph. /more
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson said the team had lightened the Focus by shedding about 40kgs since Portugal. "So far this season we've concentrated on making the car reliable and that's paid dividends," he said. "Since Portugal we've put extra emphasis on performance and our engineers have been working hard to reduce the weight by using lightweight materials where we can.
"We'll use forged magnesium wheel rims, we've re-routed the pipework using lighter hoses, we've lost weight from the roll cage without compromising safety and adopted lighter underbody protection, which is just as strong. The weight loss will obviously affect the car's set-up but we have enough allowance in the suspension to alter the damper settings to compensate," added Wilson.
Michelin's wide range of tyres has been vital to the Ford Martini team's success this season but in Catalunya the French company's rubber could prove more crucial than ever. The event is the first of the season where the nature of the roads allows drivers to cut corners, shaving vital tenths of a second from their stage times.
Driving over grass or gravel on the inside of bends often allows competitors to take a smoother and straighter, and therefore faster, line. The danger of using such a technique is the risk of puncturing a tyre on a stone lying on the verge or against the side of the asphalt as it 'steps' down from the road to the verge.
But no longer does a puncture mean stopping to fit a new tyre. Michelin's highly developed ATS mousse insert expands immediately the tyre is pierced to keep the rubber inflated. Drivers can continue to the end of a stage at unabated speed and often reach the finish line unaware that a tyre has punctured.
The rally remains faithful to its tried and tested format with the first and final legs based in the Girona region, around the mountain town of Vic.
The middle day takes drivers on the long journey south of Barcelona to more abrasive stages in Tarragona.
Voted rally of the year in 1996 and 1997, it is based in the holiday resort of Lloret de Mar, returning there every night. Drivers pack in almost 400km in 19 stages, the final leg essentially a shorter version of the opening day's route. The toughest section will be the second half of Leg 2, in which drivers tackle almost 110km in just three stages, the longest of which is nearly 46km. The two opening stages of the rally, which are repeated at the end of the day, have not been used for several years while the Riudecanyes test on Leg 2 is well-known to teams as a test stage but has never been used on the rally.