Ford debuts Focus and McRae in Monte Carlo
The glitz and glamour of Monte Carlo provides the perfect setting for the competition debut of the exciting new Ford Focus World Rally Car. Regarded as the most radical and technologically advanced rally car ever built, the Focus heralds the start of a new era in Ford's rallying history.
The world-famous Monte Carlo Rally, opening round of the 1999 FIA World Rally Championship, also marks the first appearance for Ford of former world champions Colin McRae and Nicky Grist. Add to that a new sponsor partnership with Martini Racing and the debut of second drivers Simon Jean-Joseph and Fred Gallagher and the event really does mark a new beginning for the manufacturer.
While the rich and famous try their luck in Monte Carlo's casino, Ford's planning for the debut of the Focus has left little to chance. Thirteen months of design and evolution have gone into the building of the car and McRae has covered more than 1,500km of high speed development work during recent testing.
Thirteen months may seem a long time, but in terms of building a brand new rally car it has been a race against the clock and there is much more to come. The Ford Martini World Rally Team is realistic and accepts that the Focus is unlikely to be challenging for victories until the second half of the season.
"We need more testing time but it's clear that the Focus has the potential to be an excellent rally car," said McRae. "But for Monte Carlo we have to accept that we're not going to win. To finish is our first target and if we can do that it would be nice to be in the top six and score points.
"There's nothing too difficult about the special stages but it's the inconsistency of the weather that makes the event so hard. It's possible to experience sheet ice, snow and dry asphalt on the same stage and that makes tyre selection almost impossible. It would be better for us if the weather was quite severe. Dry asphalt would not suit us at all at this stage of the car's development," added 30-year-old McRae, from Lanark, Scotland.
Jean-Joseph, 29 years old and from the Caribbean island of Martinique, was runner-up in last year's French championship, coming within a whisker of snatching the crown in his own privately-run team from his main rival in a works run car. He will be competing on only his second world championship event but has the experience of co-driver Gallagher to rely on.
"This is an exciting time but also a challenging one," said Jean-Joseph. "I have a completely new car, a new co-driver and a new rally to get used to. I've only driven the Focus for about 70km in testing, it will be my first event driving a car with a sequential gearbox and I've never driven
"My first aim will be to finish. If we are inside the top 10 it will be good, if we are outside that's no problem but we must finish. I must try to keep very cool and make the most of this opportunity to learn more about the car. It's a great thrill to be driving with one of the best teams in the world championship," he added.
Ford Martini World Rally Team director Malcolm Wilson has clear views on the team's objectives. "I want us to be competitive from the very start. Due to the timescale involved in building the car and the lack of testing, Colin's not had as much time behind the wheel as we would like. But we shall continue to develop and evolve the Focus throughout the rally and in the coming months to make us more competitive," added Wilson.
Tyre selection is the key to success on the Monte Carlo Rally. The same set of tyres must be used on a group of stages where conditions can vary widely. Indeed the road surface can change from ice to snow and then to asphalt during the same stage and drivers often find themselves using studded tyres in dry conditions and asphalt ones in heavy snow.
In that situation tyre choice is vital and opting for the least unsatisfactory rubber in the wrong conditions is the challenge. Two drivers using different tyres may gain 40 seconds over their rivals on a stage which is suited to their rubber. But on the following test, which proves unsuitable, it is the driver whose tyre choice costs only 25 seconds rather than the one who drops 50 seconds that comes out on top.
To assist with selection the Ford Martini World Rally team employs personnel in constant radio contact with the team to advise on the latest weather. They will wait, high on the mountain tops, constantly relaying information to help the drivers and tyre engineers from Michelin predict the conditions maybe two hours later, when the drivers tackle the stages.
Although Monte Carlo is the rally base, much of the action is fought out some 250km north in the mountain roads of the French Alps, around the town of Gap. Only the final three stages of Leg 2 and the four tests of Leg 3 are close to Monte Carlo, based in the mountains behind the resort and tackling the famous Col de Turini three times.
Sunday's opening leg, from Monte Carlo to Gap, contains no special stages and the first competitive action will be at the start of Leg 2 on Monday. More than 420km of competitive driving are packed into just 14 stages, giving an average stage length of more than 30km, the highest on any world championship event in recent memory. The opening test of the rally is 48km, longer than any single test in the 1998 championship.