It was 27 years ago that the American giant Ford took the World Rally Championship's Manufacturers' title for the first time with the Ford Escort RS 1800 in 1979. Since then, the firm has finished 14 times on the Manufacturers' podium, including...
It was 27 years ago that the American giant Ford took the World Rally Championship's Manufacturers' title for the first time with the Ford Escort RS 1800 in 1979. Since then, the firm has finished 14 times on the Manufacturers' podium, including four runners-up crowns between 2000 and 2005. This weekend, however, after that maiden title harvested by the carmaker's Scandinavian pair of the day, namely Bjorn Waldegard and Hannu Mikkola, it's another Nordic duo in the persons of Marcus Gronholm and Mikko Hirvonen that has clinched championship honours for Ford this time round thanks to another one-two finish for the Focus in New Zealand.
With Sebastien Loeb still convalescing following his mountain bike accident at the end of September, the 2005 Rally of New Zealand winner Marcus Gronholm (Ford/BFGoodrich) was once again in a class of his own on this event which saw him hunting for a fourth win. Meanwhile, prior to the start, the BP-Ford squad enjoyed an advantage of 16 points and was clearly in a position of strength as it discovered the event's new host town, Hamilton, to the south of Auckland, and a new route that featured a number of exceptionally twisty stages that hadn't been used since the 1980s and 1990s.
Wet weather greeted competitors as they headed out to Friday morning's first stage. The going wasn't muddy but grip was inconsistent from one corner to the next, but that didn't stop the two works BFGoodrich-shod Fords, which were running on medium-soft '9-'compound g-Force Gravel tyres, from posting the best two times on SS1 and SS2, with Marcus Gronholm finishing ahead of Mikko Hirvonen. The pattern was repeated during the afternoon's loop which saw the Ford drivers pull definitively clear thanks to two further one-twos on the fast drying conditions. Gronholm's score of four fastest times from the first four stages gave him a healthy early lead of 31.2s over his team-mate Hirvonen, and put him more than a minute clear of Dani Sordo (Citroen/BFGoodrich) in 3rd place.
The Ford pair's domination was such that they could even afford to make a poor tyre choice for Saturday opening loop. Although torrential rain was already falling over the day's first three stages by the Tasmanian Sea coast, the weather was overcast but dry 115km from there at the service park in Hamilton when competitors had to choose their tyres for the morning, that is to say a full 2½ hours before the start of the first test. While both Ford drivers opted for 'non-cut' medium compound tyres, their Citroen/BFGoodrich rivals opted for softer rubber and re-cut tread patterns with a view to facilitating the clearance of surface mud and water. A big thank you has to go to our BFGoodrich technician and to the Kronos team's weather man," smiled Dani Sordo and Xevi Pons at the lunchtime service. Indeed, the former had succeeded in reinforcing his footing on the provisional podium and Pons had closed to within 7 seconds of 4th spot. It only needed the Fords to hit trouble and the whole title fight could be thrown wide open again--
That slight glimmer of hope soon dimmed again however when the Ford pair collected two further one-twos on SS9 and SS10 and Manfred Stohl (Peugeot/BFGoodrich) profited from Sordo's limited experience of the afternoon's stages to gain the upper-hand once again over the young Spaniard. And as crews parked up in Saturday evening's parc ferme, BP-Ford provisionally had 9 more points than Kronos Total Citroen, while a gap of just 3 extra points would have sufficed to sew up the title chase in the southern hemisphere with one round to go.
Further down the order, The Doctor Valentino Rossi (11th) took time to familiarise himself with the pace of world class rallying with his Subaru Impreza and was above all intent on reaching the finish, conscious of the ground that separates him from the WRC regulars. Meanwhile, in the works Subaru camp, Petter Solberg (6th) never seemed to be on the pace of the front-runners, while his team-mate Chris Atkinson at least had the honour of posting two fastest times before being forced to retire.
BFGoodrich ends its mini-tour of the southern hemisphere with a win in Australia and an all-BFGoodrich top-five in New Zealand. When the series moves on to the final fixture of 2006 in a fortnight's time in Cardiff, the tyre brand will be out to conclude its maiden WRC campaign with a grand slam score of 16 wins from 16 rounds!
* subject to the publication of the official results by the FIA.
Amaury de Cordes, European BFGoodrich Brand Manager: "The BFGoodrich brand is proud to have celebrated its first year in the World Rally Championship not only by helping Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena conquer the Drivers' world crown but also to have been chosen by Ford in its bid to win the Manufacturers' title. The relationship between Ford and BFGoodrich, two brands which both originated in the United States, dates back more than a hundred years when Henry Ford chose BFGoodrich tyres for his Model A in 1903! Our decision to compete in the WRC represented a big investment but we have succeeded in achieving all the objectives we set ourselves at the beginning of the year. The result has even surpassed our expectations in terms of the visibility the discipline has brought us with an audience of real enthusiasts as well as the gain it has given us in terms of brand awareness. We have been able to measure that the WRC is ideal for promoting BFGoodrich's positioning as the 'Take Control' brand, in all situations and on all types of terrain."
Jost Capito, Director of Ford TeamRS:
"Over the years, I believe the team has developed into one of the best squads in the Motorsport business. "This victory means a great deal to the team, but it is also a huge reward to all of the Ford employees, Ford Motorsport fans and Ford performance vehicle enthusiasts worldwide who have given us amazing support at every event". "The title would not have been won without the most significant members of the team delivering superb results over and over," Capito said. "The BP Ford World Rally Team pairings of Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen plus Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen have driven with determination, perseverance and world class ability. We are very proud of them, and proud of our partners."
Aime Chatard, BFGoodrich Rallies Programme Manager:
"It only takes a second to say 'World Champions', but it takes ten months and 14 or 15 rallies to actually claim the title! Seriously, BFGoodrich, which is looking to win over European motorists, is evidently delighted with this year's results. Winning the Drivers' title with Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, and the Manufacturers' crown with BP- Ford WRT is a tremendous reward for the creative engineering of our technical staff who have worked hard to make the g-Force range competitive over all the different types of terrain encountered during a full season of World Championship rallying. Rally tyres are packed with advanced technology and driven to the limit corner after corner by some of the sport's most remarkable drivers. The three ingredients for success - whether on individual events or over a full championship - is the same as ever: the best driver in the best car equipped with the best tyres. Both titles are important for BFGoodrich because they give the brand the notoriety it needs to develop."