Duval ends season with podium place for BP-Ford
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers François Duval and Stéphane Prévot ended the FIA World Rally Championship season with a podium finish in Australia today. The Belgians finished third on Rally Australia in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. It was their fifth podium of the season and the BP-Ford squad's 14th during the 16-rally championship.
A high rate of attrition over the demanding gravel tracks near the Western Australia capital of Perth ensured that less than half the 62 starters finished the four-day rally. But Duval's Focus RS never missed a beat over the 25 speed tests covering 388.25km, and he took no risks on a rally of which he had little previous experience to end the season on a high.
Ford, which earlier this month announced it would continue in the WRC for the next four years, had already secured second in the manufacturers' championship on the previous round in Spain. Duval finished sixth in the drivers' series with BP-Ford team-mate Markko Märtin, who retired early on the opening leg in Australia, claiming third.
Unseasonably cool and wet weather in the run-up to the start made the roads damp and slippery during the opening leg. Even when the Australian sunshine returned, driving was no easier. As the tracks dried, the surface became covered with millions of tiny marble-like stones, which proved a severe disadvantage to drivers early in the start order.
Duval moved into third early yesterday morning and was never challenged. He cruised through today's six speed tests, the bulk of which were based in the Sotico tree plantation, south-east of Perth, with no problems.
"I altered the suspension settings early this morning and they turned out to be too hard so I changed back to softer settings again for the Sotico tests," said 23-year-old Duval. "We were third in the start order again today and so there was loads of loose gravel on the roads in Sotico. It was hard to see a clean driving line and we were just sweeping the stones away on the first pass through the tests. The second time through was better and easier.
"It has been a very long and difficult rally but it's great to finish the year with a podium place. It was an unexpected result for us because we don't have much experience here. We set out with the aim of not taking any risks and that paid off. Once we reached third yesterday morning, there were big gaps both in front and behind us so there was nothing to gain by attacking. We weren't happy with our pace notes last year so we made many changes during practice and that brought some big improvements.
"The most difficult part of the weekend has been our position in the start order. A driver lying third would normally expect a much lower, and therefore much better, starting position. But because there were so many retirements we spent two days third in the start order, sweeping the gravel away for those behind. I have not had a good feeling on the stages," added Duval.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with the Belgians' performance. "It's a great way to finish the season. François doesn't have much knowledge of the roads out here but he drove a very calculated rally. His target was always to drive carefully, with the aim of gaining as much experience as possible. While other drivers made mistakes and had problems, he kept clear of trouble and his reward was another podium," he said.
News from our Rivals
World champion Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) cruised through the final day to clinch his record-equalling sixth win of the season. It is a landmark he now shares with fellow Frenchman Didier Auriol. He won by 1min 55.1sec from Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot), whose only difficulty came early this morning when the Finn chose tyres that were too soft for the conditions. Behind Duval, fourth place for Mikko Hirvonen (Subaru) equalled his career-best performance. Australian driver Chris Atkinson claimed fifth. Fellow countryman Dean Herridge was on course for sixth until he retired on the penultimate stage, allowing Xavier Pons to move up. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot), who restarted under the SupeRally regulations after crashing yesterday, rolled heavily on the penultimate stage. Briton Niall McShea won the Production Car world title after Scot Alister McRae retired from the lead four stages from the finish.