Ford BP Rallye Sport next week enters traditionally its strongest phase of the FIA World Rally Championship leading both the manufacturers' and drivers' series. The Cyprus Rally (13 - 16 May) is the first of three consecutive hot and rough events...
Ford BP Rallye Sport next week enters traditionally its strongest phase of the FIA World Rally Championship leading both the manufacturers' and drivers' series. The Cyprus Rally (13 - 16 May) is the first of three consecutive hot and rough events in the eastern Mediterranean, conditions in which the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car has excelled in recent years.
The Focus has built an awesome reputation on events where rock-strewn gravel tracks and searing temperatures require a crucial blend of strength, reliability and speed to be successful. The car has won twice in Cyprus in the rally's four years in the championship.
The Ford BP team heads for the sun-kissed island with a nine point lead in the manufacturers' standings. Markko Martin and Michael Park head the drivers' table by a point following one victory and two other podium finishes in their Castrol-backed Focus RS in the first four rounds of the championship. Team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot lie fifth after podium results in both Monte Carlo and Mexico in a similar car.
Rocky tracks high in the Troodos Mountains are potential car breakers. While temperatures are likely to be lower than in 2003 when the event was in mid-June, the three-day rally will offer some of the toughest conditions of the season where endurance is as important as outright pace. The rally is the slowest in the championship and last year's event was won at an average of only 66.18kph. Low speeds ensure little airflow to cool the engine and transmission.
Martin and Park have started Cyprus on three occasions but their fourth start could be the most difficult. As championship leaders, they will be first to tackle the special stages on the first day. If the weather is dry, they will face the worst of the conditions in the morning as loose gravel on the surface will make the tracks slippery. Ironically, Martin and other early starters will sweep the stones clear to leave a cleaner and more grippy surface for those lower down the order.
The 28-year-old Estonian driver prefers not to worry about the disadvantage and to concentrate on extending his lead. "Finding the right rhythm is so important in Cyprus," he said. "The roads are slow and twisty and a driver must find the right balance between speed and aggression. It's a totally different approach from the previous round in New Zealand and it can be quite frustrating. Because the roads are slow, there is often the feeling of not driving fast enough. But if you push too hard, you risk sliding off the line and losing time.
"Grip is important in Cyprus when the roads are dry and twisty. There are many turns and so the car is accelerating and braking all the time. As a result the rally is quite demanding on tyres, especially if the weather is very hot," he added.
Duval will also start the event for the fourth time. The 23-year-old Belgian made an instant impression in 2002 when he led in a Focus RS early on the opening day during his first gravel world championship event in a World Rally Car. Since then he has claimed impressive results on rough rallies, mixing speed with caution to keep clear of trouble.
"It's a tough rally for drivers, co-drivers and cars," he said. "I "enjoy the twisty roads but maybe this rally is just a little too slow "for me. I think it's possible for me to finish in the top five. It's "not necessary to attack hard on the first day because many cars will "find trouble and a cautious approach can pay off. Our start position "on the first day is not too bad. I think to start 10th or 12th would "be perfect if the conditions are dry. We are fifth but that is OK. "It's difficult to drive when there is a lot of gravel on the road and "it's hard to stop the car when the road isn't clean," he added.
* Markko Martin and Francois Duval spent five days testing a Focus RS on rough gravel roads in southern Spain at the end of last month in preparation for the next three rallies in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey. The duo concentrated on set-up work, endurance driving and tyre testing with Michelin. Martin completed 540km in three days with Duval totalling 192km in two days. Weather conditions were changeable. Four of the five days were warm, rather than hot, with temperatures ranging from 15-25C but Martin's final day was wet with temperatures dipping as low as 5C.
* The team's new hospitality unit will open its doors for the first time in the service park at Lemesos. It offers entertainment, displays and behind the scenes tours as well as a casual bar area and a separate seated restaurant for guests. There are also offices for team members to work in and areas for them to relax. The unit will attend all European rounds.
The route covers similar territory to previous years with much of the competitive distance located in the Troodos Mountains, north of the rally base of Lemesos. All the action is based around a new central service park on the western edge of the town, each day comprising two identical loops of three stages. The opening leg is the longest, covering a compact route in the very north of the Troodos, close to the Turkish border. The middle day is based further south, close to Mt Olympus, and west towards the resort of Paphos. The final day is identical to 2003 and the shortest, covering tests north-east of Lemesos in the hilly and forested Machairas area. The rally begins with a ceremonial start on Thursday evening on Lemesos promenade. Drivers face 326.68km of competition in a route of 1146.42km.