Rough, mountain tracks with blistering temperatures, this is an event which demands brains as well as brawn in pursuit of victory
As one of the most iconic events in the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC), a win at the Acropolis Rally of Greece is something every driver dreams of adding to their repertoire. Mixing rough, mountain tracks with blistering temperatures, this is an event which demands brains as well as brawn in pursuit of victory – something the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team Ford Fiesta RS WRCs will be looking to capitalise on next week.
Littered with hairpin bends and scattered with rocks, the rally route is arguably the most arduous of the year – testing man and machine alike. Tyre and engine preservation is key and, as the twisting stages limit the natural airflow, cockpit temperatures can rise as high as 50˚C which requires peak physical fitness from both driver and co-driver.
Looking to make their mark at the Rally of the Gods, Mads Østberg and co-driver Jonas Andersson will be hoping to secure a podium finish – something which has cruelly eluded the pairing of late. The Scandinavians claimed fourth place on the event last year and, given their recent pace, will be confident of doing one better next week.
Never far from the thrill of competition, Østberg made an appearance on Norwegian TV last week alongside fellow countryman and rival, Andreas Mikkelsen. Taking part in a Norwegian game show, the pairing teamed up to challenge Alpine Ski legends Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Lasse Kjus.
Team mate Evgeny Novikov has fond memories of the Acropolis Rally – an event which propelled him into the record books as the youngest ever stage winner in 2009. Not content with a single stage victory, the Russian set the fastest time on four of the event’s speed tests to secure an impressive record – 18 years, 8 months and 24 days – which is yet to be beaten.
Following two solid fourth place finishes and having been fighting for the podium in Argentina, the Muscovite and his Austrian co-driver, Ilka Minor, will be hungry for success when the WRC returns to Europe. Fresh from their sixth successive victory in the FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC), Nasser Al-Attiyah and co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini will make a welcome return to the Qatar World Rally Team next week. Their victory at the Jordan Rally marked the Qatari’s 48th in the Middle Eastern series and – with a perfect three wins from three so far this season – Al-Attiyah is well on his way to securing a record breaking ninth MERC title.
Talking numbers, next week’s Acropolis Rally will also mark Bernacchini’s 100th appearance in the World Series. Partnered by his experienced co-driver, and thanks to two strong fifth place finishes, Al-Attiyah has recorded his best ever start to a WRC season. Needless to say the Qatari will be looking to continue his recent form as the championship continues in Greece.
Also hoping for a strong result is the Belgian duo of Thierry Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul. Having secured a creditable sixth place finish on their Acropolis debut last year, the pairing will be keen to break into the top-five on this their second attempt.
It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Neuville. Following another solid performance in Argentina, the Belgian visited his former school where he was presented with an essay in which his younger self dreamed of becoming a world class rally driver – mission accomplished. Following a pre-event test in Portugal, the Belgian will visit the glamorous principality of Monaco for the highlight of the FIA Formula One World Championship before returning to competition for the sixth round of the WRC.
Mads Østberg said:
“Our main aim is to finish an event without having to [restart under] Rally 2 [regulations]! This is definitely one of the most difficult events of the year, but we will certainly try to achieve that goal next week.
“The Acropolis Rally is a really rough event. There is always a risk that rocks can be pulled onto the line and there will be a few really tricky sections to contend with. The key is to take care of the car. Tyre wear is always a factor too, so that is something else we’ll need to consider throughout the weekend. Then there are the night stages. The organisers will do their best, but if there is no wind, dust could be a big problem.
“To get the car back in one piece is a big challenge, but we will push from the beginning and hopefully have some good speed. We’ve had some bad luck in recent events, so now we need to turn that around. The podium is where we want to be, and that’s what we’ll be fighting for.”
Evgeny Novikov said:
“As always, we go to this event with the goal of doing our best and securing some good points for the team. I like this rally a lot and have a lot of good memories from previous years – especially 2009 when I took my first stage wins in the WRC.
“Tyre preservation will be key next week. This is a very rough event, and when combined with the high temperatures, tyre wear can be a major factor. Hopefully dust won’t be an issue as it has been in the past, and all in all I am really looking forward to getting back behind the wheel [at the Acropolis Rally].”
Nasser Al-Attiyah said:
“I have a lot of good memories from this event. Of course it’s a challenging rally, but when you get a good result, you know that you have been driving well. For me, the biggest challenge is keeping the car out of trouble and being mindful of punctures which are a big risk. That’s the most important thing if you want to do well here.
“We’re fresh from our third win in the [FIA] Middle East Rally Championship [this year], so our confidence is high. Like with all of the rallies this year, our goal is always to have fun and do the maximum that we can. However, it would be great to do one better than we did in Mexico and Portugal as this will be Giovanni’s [Bernacchini, co-driver] 100th appearance in the WRC. He is a fantastic co-driver – very professional – and we have achieved a lot together in the past four years.”
Thierry Neuville said:
“This is a rally I enjoy and this year it will be even better as it seems only the best parts of last year’s route have been included. There are a couple of stages on Saturday which will be quite rough, but otherwise the stages should be ‘smoother’ than in previous years.
“Of course it is still an event which challenges both the drivers and the cars, so we’ll be taking the same cautious approach we adapted for Argentina – play it clever, look after the car and make it to the end of the rally.
“I definitely feel as though we progressed in Argentina. So even though we won’t be pushing to our full potential, we should still be able to show some good pace next week.”
Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team