Ford Martini aim for starring role in Corsica
Just two weeks after the finish of the FIA World Rally Championship's first all asphalt event of the season, Ford Martini World Rally Team drivers Colin McRae and Simon Jean-Joseph return to asphalt roads - on the Mediterranean island of Corsica - safe in the knowledge that the surface holds no fears for them.
Two fastest stage times and one second quickest during the second leg of Spain's Catalunya Rally earlier this month proved to all that the Ford Focus World Rally Car, competing on only its fifth rally, is already a match for its rivals on asphalt.
A first day time loss in Spain ruled McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist out of the running for a third successive victory in 1999. But it enabled the Ford Martini team to prepare for the Tour of Corsica (7 - 9 May), round six of the championship, by trying out a variety of suspension settings and tyre selections in the heat of Spanish competition - the best test platform of all.
"We learnt a lot about the car in ideal conditions in Spain" said McRae "Even though it was disappointing not be challenging for a win on the rally, the' test' session was very worthwhile. The car ran well before we had the problems. We were right on the pace and I'm happy that we now have a good basic dry asphalt set-up for the car.
"The main factor in Corsica is tyres, it is very twisty and the surface is quite abrasive, so we will need to work closely with Michelin to make sure we choose the right tyres, that are a good comprise between grip and wear."
Jean-Joseph and co-driver Fred Gallagher aim to bounce back from a retirement in Spain on what is the home event for the 29-year-old driver from the French Caribbean island of Martinique. The 1993 Tour of Corsica marked Jean-Joseph's world championship debut and he was lying inside the top 10 when mechanical problems brought about his retirement.
"The Corsica rally is a nice one for me to do," said Jean-Joseph. "It is very narrow and twisty, so it is a big challenge for the driver. You have to set-up the car just right and I think that after the Catalunya Rally we will be in strong position. Though we will still have to work very hard, because the competition from the other teams, including the Formula 2 cars will be very strong."
Team director Malcolm Wilson, is encouraged by the progress the team made in Catalunya. "We are optimistic after Spain. Being able to 'test' on the rally, in the right environment has enabled us to start Corsica with a number of base setting options, which we shall evaluate prior to the start of the rally at the shakedown. The test also highlighted some areas that we needed to work on, and since our return from Spain our engineers have been working flat out to resolve them.
"Corsica will be a hard event for us if the weather is dry and hot due our limited testing in these conditions. We have made a lot of progress though and the experience we gained in Spain should put us in a good position."
The Tour of Corsica marks the introduction of live international television coverage of the final special stage - an innovation that could transform the sport in years to come. The final 15.30km test will be held during prime time Sunday afternoon viewing. Both drivers and registered manufacturers will be eligible for the bonus 3-2-1 points awarded to the fastest competitors. In addition, any official team entries that have retired earlier will be allowed to contest this final stage and to score points.
Predicting the weather on an asphalt rally, vital in choosing tread pattern and compounds, is probably more difficult in Corsica than on any other world championship event. The nature of the island stages, often starting at the bottom of a mountain before climbing to the summit and descending the other side, means drivers can experience contrasting conditions - rain and fog on the climb turning to sunshine and dry roads once over the summit.
A wrong tyre selection can make the difference between winning and losing a rally. So the Ford Martini team will deploy weather crews stationed at strategic parts of a stage to send back information by radio to engineers from the team and tyre partner Michelin, waiting in a service park to the last possible moment before fitting brand new tyres to the Ford Focus and ensuring the drivers leave on schedule.
Having left the service park, there is no going back. If dry tyres have been fitted and there is a sudden downpour, the driver must use all of his skills not just to set a fast time but to actually keep the car on the road in conditions comparable to driving on ice.
The coastal towns of Ajaccio and Propriano on the first and third legs and the mountain town of Corte on the middle day provide the hubs around which the rally revolves. Legs 1 and 3 are held over essentially the same stages, although the final day also includes the televised stage which climbs into the hills behind the Golfe de Sagone. The middle day takes drivers up the backbone of the island for a group of tests around Corte.
Tortuously twisty mountain roads and barely any straight sections longer than 100 metres have earned this classic event the label 'Rally of 10,000 Corners'. The typical Corsican stage, with craggy rock faces on one side of the road and a narrow stretch of asphalt separating it from a precarious drop on the other, makes it a rally not for the faint-hearted. Almost 375km of stages in a compact route of 1,078km ensure a high ratio of competitive driving to liaison sections and the twisty roads ensure average speeds are quite low.
TOUR OF CORSICA
ROUND 6 FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP 7 - 9 MAY 1999
Friday 7 May: Leg 1 Ajaccio - Ajaccio
Stage km Total km Time Start Ajaccio 08.00 SS1 Verghia - Pietra Rossa 26.55 09.01 SS2 Filitosa - Bicchisano 22.63 09.42 SS3 Portigliolo - Boca Albitrina 16.54 11.30 SS4 Sart