World champions* Ford bid to end WRC season in style Newly-crowned FIA World Rally champions BP-Ford aim to complete the most successful season in their history by ending a long winless streak on next week's Wales Rally GB (30 November - 1 ...
World champions* Ford bid to end WRC season in style
Newly-crowned FIA World Rally champions BP-Ford aim to complete the most successful season in their history by ending a long winless streak on next week's Wales Rally GB (30 November - 1 December). After securing the manufacturers' world title earlier this month for the first time since 1979, BP-Ford drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen have their sights set on giving Ford a first British win since the same year.
After two seasons when the rally was held in September, Rally GB has reclaimed its traditional winter date as the final round of the 16-event championship. And the date switch, which extends the championship into December for the first time since 1986, throws up the prospect of unpredictable wintry weather -- the single most difficult challenge faced by drivers in the hilly speed tests in the south Wales forests.
Apart from a spectacular spectator-friendly indoor special stage in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, all 17 tests are held on tough privately-owned gravel tracks. Most roads are in regular use, either by military vehicles on the most northerly stages or by lorries transporting logs to timber yards. Accordingly large log piles are a common sight by the edge of the tracks, adding an additional hazard for drivers.
Narrow tree-lined section high in the Vale of Neath forests contrast with vast open sections, both on the military land and where forestry work has removed the trees. If the weather is wet and gloomy, fog tends to hang between the trees in the forests while throwing a white blanket across the exposed areas on higher land. The roads are fast and flowing and invite drivers to attack, but in the wet they can be treacherously slippery and become rutted during the second pass.
Gronholm has won six rounds and Hirvonen one as the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car powered to championship success. With both the manufacturers' and drivers' titles now settled, BP-Ford World Rally Team director Malcolm Wilson has ensured both pairings that they are free to fight for victory.
Gronholm has plenty of experience in Britain, having started nine times and won once. "It can be an extremely difficult rally," said 38-year-old Gronholm. "When the conditions are OK then the stages are fine but when it is wet, foggy, muddy and icy -- sometimes all together -- then the roads can be really hazardous. Fog is something that we don't encounter on many rallies during the season, but you can guarantee that with the rally back at the end of the season, at some point we will have fog and that's horrible.
"I'm looking forward to a good battle and I'm sure that Mikko will be one of my biggest challengers. He has increased his pace as the season has progressed and I know that he wants to try to prove himself in Britain so it should be good fun," added Gronholm, assured of second in the drivers' standings.
Hirvonen has started in Britain on three occasions and the 26-year-old is relishing the opportunity to attack. "There will be no pressure through having to score points so I'm looking forward to giving it a real go and driving as fast as I can. The stages in Wales are good but it's not an easy event in which to bring the car home to the finish because of the conditions. In the dry the stages are quite simple but in December we can expect temperatures below zero with ice and fog. Fog is the worst. The roads are so fast that when it's foggy you can't see well.
"I will try to win but I know that to do that I need to beat Marcus at least. I hope that I can match his pace and put pressure on him through the whole weekend," added Hirvonen, who is already assured of third in the drivers' championship.
* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force medium-wearing gravel tyres and teams are only allowed to nominate one tread pattern this year. The pattern is relatively compact to ensure a maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the ground for the best possible grip and traction. The grooves can be hand cut to open them if there is a lot of loose gravel on the road surface or if the tracks become muddy. Due to the expected conditions hard and medium compound rubber will not be required so the tyres will be available in soft compound only.
* The M-Sport run Stobart-VK Rally Team has entered two 2006-specification Focus RS WRCs for Britons Matthew Wilson / Michael Orr and Finns Jari-Matti Latvala / Miikka Anttila. Privately-entered Focus RS cars have been entered by British champions Mark Higgins / Rory Kennedy and Irish duo Gareth MacHale / Paul Nagle. Barry Clark / Scott Martin will chase the rookie's title in the FIA Junior World Championship at the wheel of a Fiesta ST. The event is also the final round of the Fiesta SportingTrophy International and 12 contenders will take the start.
* To celebrate Ford winning the manufacturers' title, anyone accessing WRC.com from Friday 1 December will be able to view live Rally GB and other archive online footage on this subscription site free of charge courtesy of Ford Motor Company. Free access will be available for a two week period from 1 December.
The rally is again based entirely in the forests of south Wales and although the start and finish are in Cardiff, the single service park is based on the edge of Swansea, 70km to the west. Each leg comprises two identical loops of tests in the morning and afternoon. Friday's opening leg is centred on the Vale of Neath forests and includes the classic Resolfen and Rheola tests. Saturday's competition is located further north, close to the Epynt military land, near Brecon. The day ends with a spectacular test inside Cardiff's Millennium Stadium and, like last year, the arena's sliding roof will be closed. The final leg takes competitors west to the Brechfa Forest complex for stages which have traditionally formed the opening day's action in recent years. Drivers tackle 17 stages covering 355.92km of competition in a route of 1206.67km.
*Subject to the official publication of the results by the FIA