New Ford Focus RS makes its mark in Rally Australia
The all-new Ford Focus RS World Rally Car made an instant impact during its first public appearance on Rally Australia today. Just 11 months after work began on the car, BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen and team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Tomanek posted top four times on today's opening leg of the 16th and final round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
After successful initial testing in Britain, this four-day gravel rally comprises the second level of the car's test and development programme in preparation for the 2006 season. It will allow the BP-Ford team to evaluate the Focus RS in a competitive environment, with no pressure to achieve top results. The early signs were hugely encouraging with Gardemeister claiming second fastest time at the super special stage at Perth's Gloucester Park trotting track, which began the action yesterday evening.
The 30-year-old Finn added a third fastest time on the slippery gravel roads more than 100km south of the Western Australia capital of Perth, where this morning's speed tests were based. Twice Kresta was fourth fastest and both Focus RS drivers were in the top three overall on stage times during the morning loop.
However, both Kresta and Gardemeister were last night handed a 30 second time penalty for not starting the event with the same engine with which they finished the Rally Japan in the 2005- specification Focus RS (Japan and Australia are paired for engine purposes). Ironically, had that engine been fitted to the new 2006 Focus RS, the team would also have been liable for a penalty for using an engine which is no longer homologated. With the penalties added, Gardemeister ended the leg in seventh, 9.2sec ahead of Kresta in eighth.
Dry and sunny conditions guaranteed perfect spectating weather and a stiff breeze ensured the dust clouds quickly dispersed. The gravel tracks were as tricky as ever. They have a hard base which is covered by millions of tiny ball-bearing-like stones. As a result the roads are extremely slippery and the first cars to drive fresh tracks are at a considerable disadvantage as they sweep the stones clear to provide better grip for those behind. After last night's two Gloucester Park tests, drivers tackled nine more stages today, making 129.73km of competition in total.
Neither Gardemeister nor Kresta had driven the new Focus RS before yesterday's shakedown test session, but the Finn completed today's opening loop in ninth and was impressed with the new car. "It feels very good but I need time to get used to it," he said. "It's different to drive compared with the previous Focus and I need to get used to the feeling between the ground and the car. It brakes and handles superbly and there is more grip at the rear of the car. It's really powerful at low revs."
Gardemeister lost more than 20 seconds after sliding off the road on the day's final bush test. "Halfway through the stage I started to slide and ended up going over a bank and into some small trees. Perhaps I was going too fast and the surface was loose. I've had a lot of dust coming into the car this afternoon and it was hard to see in places," he added.
Kresta ended the morning loop in seventh and was similarly impressed. "It's fantastic!" said 30-year-old Kresta, whose performance was remarkable considering he has never competed in Australia before. "It feels like I'm driving slowly, like I've taken the car shopping, but the engine is so good that I'm driving really quickly. I have a good feeling with it, although it feels totally different to the previous Focus RS and I need to forget everything I learned about that car. It hasn't been easy though. The roads are slippery and I'm driving a new car on a new rally for me and trying to perfect my pace notes as well. That's a lot to think about at the same time!"
Kresta dropped 25 seconds in a bizarre incident on stage eight. "I landed after a jump and my door came open and the window dropped at the same time. As I tried to close the door, I missed a junction and swiped a bank. I had so much dust come into the car through the window that I could not see for the rest of the stage," he explained.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with the Focus RS' debut day. "I'm delighted with the performance of the car and the fact that we have had no major technical problems on the car's first day of competition. Considering he has never driven here before, Roman has driven superbly and I'm looking forward another good day tomorrow," he said.
Spain's Dani Solà and Xavier Amigo are ninth in a 2005-specification Focus RS after a troublefree day. "I'm surprised how difficult it has been because the roads are so slippery," he said. "It's incredible how often the grip changes, because the road surface changes so frequently. I've concentrated on finding a good driving style and I'm happy with the day."
News from our Rivals
A dramatic day accounted for several top drivers. The biggest was world champion Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) who had just edged into the lead when he crashed into a tree near the end of stage nine. Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) retired on a liaison section for the third rally in a row when his front suspension collapsed on stage seven and the police stopped him as he attempted to return to the Perth service park. Team-mate Daniel Carlsson crashed on today's opening stage and his car caught fire and burned out. Neither Carlsson nor co-driver Mattias Andersson were injured. Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson (both Subaru) each led early this morning but Atkinson dropped more than 2min 30sec after breaking a steering arm. Solberg moved ahead when Loeb crashed and leads Francois Duval (Citroen) by 46.6sec. Colin McRae (Skoda) drove superbly and made the most of a cleaner road position to hold third, 15.5sec ahead of Harri Rovanpera (Mitsubishi).
The second leg contains some of the most spectacular tests of the season. Cars head south-east of Perth to Bannister Plantation, where the famous roller-coaster Bunnings jumps and water splash provide superb action for photographers and TV crews. After five stages at Bannister, competitors return for a repeat of today's afternoon tests before two last stages at the Gloucester Park super special. Drivers leave Perth at 07.35 and return at 20.22 after 122.34km of competition.