Ford begins new era as WRC year opens in Monte Carlo The opening of the FIA World Rally Championship season on the Rallye Monte Carlo (19 - 22 January) heralds a new era for Ford. An exciting new Focus RS World Rally Car is complemented by a ...
Ford begins new era as WRC year opens in Monte Carlo
The opening of the FIA World Rally Championship season on the Rallye Monte Carlo (19 - 22 January) heralds a new era for Ford. An exciting new Focus RS World Rally Car is complemented by a fresh driver line-up comprising the experience of double world champions Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen and the raw talent of rising stars Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen.
The new Focus RS WRC, based on the recently launched Focus ST road car, encompasses the innovative design of BP-Ford World Rally Team technical director Christian Loriaux, his team of designers and engineers at M-Sport and the expertise of Ford TeamRS. After a test debut on the Rally Australia last year, the car lines-up for the first time in serious competition at the start of a 16-round championship which covers gravel, asphalt, snow and ice across five continents.
This opening round, the oldest in the calendar, is a tough start. The glamorous playground of the rich and famous provides the ideal backdrop. But bleak and inhospitable roads in the southern French Alps can provide one of the hardest challenges of the year.
Essentially an asphalt event on technically straight-forward roads, the Rallye Monte Carlo can be hugely difficult because of the unpredictable weather. Drivers can face bone dry roads, streaming wet asphalt and treacherous ice - with the threat of snow on the highest ground. They can often encounter all on the same speed test as the route climbs and descends mountain cols, switching from southern facing roads sheltered from the extreme weather to exposed northern ones.
There is no perfect tyre choice for such mixed conditions, especially when each group of special stages contains three tests which can offer vastly different conditions and on rubber that must be chosen up to four hours before the last action begins. Frequently, the secret for success is selecting compromise rubber which loses least time in the 'wrong' conditions.
New regulations for 2006 add to the challenges for Gronholm and Hirvonen. Cost-cutting regulations banning high-technology active differentials and the widespread use of lightweight but expensive titanium will change the cars. And each rally is paired with another, requiring drivers to use the same chassis and engine on both events.
Gronholm is all too aware of the difficulties of this event but is quietly optimistic, without going so far as to predict a debut victory. "The car is ready on asphalt," said the 37-year-old Finn. "Testing has gone well and I already have a good feeling with the car. I feel excited about this season and I have been counting down the days to the start since the end of last season. It's best not to try too hard on Rallye Monte Carlo though. It's a tough rally and my aim is to score a good result and avoid making any silly mistakes in the unpredictable conditions.
"The rally is historic and it has to be in the championship, but it's far from being my favourite event. It's scary to start a stage when you don't know what the road conditions are going to be like. You can encounter asphalt, ice and snow and when you know you don't have the perfect tyres for one of those, you can't drive flat out. Some years I have driven in first gear on snow and ice for 3-4km because I have asphalt tyres on the car and I don't like that. You really don't know what to expect round the next corner," added Gronholm for whom this will be his seventh start.
Twenty-five-year-old Hirvonen, who has started the rally twice, acknowledges that initially he must concentrate on learning the car and increasing his experience rather than striving for his maiden rally victory immediately. "I want to be able to learn without the pressure of having to deliver victories on my first few rallies," he said. "This is a great opportunity for me at Ford and I want to make the most of it. Testing has gone well for me so far. Asphalt isn't my favourite surface but I scored my best result on an asphalt rally in Spain last year so I know can drive well enough on it.
"I've had no problems settling into the team. Many of the faces are the same as when I drove for Ford in 2003 and that has made it easier. I know testing is different to the heat of competition, but I'm confident I can start the season well and open the year with a good, solid result," he added.
* BP will continue to be Ford's principal partner in the WRC. The Focus RS WRCs will sport an exciting new livery for 2006 with both vehicles carrying identical BP Ultimate and Castrol colours.
* The team completed its pre-season testing in the south of France on Friday. Gronholm, Hirvonen and test driver Roman Kresta all drove during a five-day sealed surface test near Gap. It was the third test in preparation for the season following pre-Christmas programmes in Sweden and France.
* Gronholm, Hirvonen, Rautiainen and Lehtinen made their first public appearances for Ford at Thursday's Autosport International show in Birmingham. The drivers were joined by BP-Ford director Malcolm Wilson and Ford TeamRS director Jost Capito.
* BP-Ford has signed a three-year agreement with BFGoodrich as the team's new tyre partner. Although this is a first foray into the WRC for BFGoodrich, the company has a huge pedigree in the United States. It comes to Monte Carlo with the expertise of the Michelin group behind it.
* Matt Wilson / Michael Orr and Peter Tsjoen / Eddy Chevalier will drive Ford Focus RS WRC 04 cars for the privately run Stobart-VK-M-Sport Ford Rally Team. Three Irish crews will tackle the event in privately-entered cars. Austin McHale / Brian Murphy and Eamonn Boland / Francis Regan will drive 2004-specification cars, with Gareth McHale / Paul Nagle in a 2003 version.
Monaco's famous Casino Square, home to celebrity gamblers and big bets, is where the stakes will be raised at the ceremonial start on Thursday evening. The rally is highly compact and is based in the mountains above Monaco and Nice with competitors returning to the Principality for service in the port area. The opening leg is based entirely to the north of the Var river with the second day, the longest of the event, generally located on the opposite side. The opening day includes a brand new stage and another not used since 1994 while the second day includes a stage not used for 14 years as well as a first pass over the classic Col de Turini. The final leg has a more traditional flavour. It is based in the mountains near Sospel and includes two further passes over the Turini, with the spectacular gorge section near Moulinet again run downhill. Drivers tackle 18 stages in total, covering 366.39km in a route of 1336.84km.