BP-Ford drivers expect hot pace in Welsh forests While Finland's sweeping roads remain the fastest in the FIA World Rally Championship, BP-Ford World Rally Team's drivers could find that next week's Wales Rally GB (15 - 18 September) is not far...
BP-Ford drivers expect hot pace in Welsh forests
While Finland's sweeping roads remain the fastest in the FIA World Rally Championship, BP-Ford World Rally Team's drivers could find that next week's Wales Rally GB (15 - 18 September) is not far behind. Traditionally a winter event, it was reborn last year as an end-of-summer rally and while heavy weather and fog ensured conditions differed little from its usual November date, dry weather this year could see speeds soar.
Last year's rain-soaked event was won at an average speed of more than 106kph. But if the recent dry weather continues, which has left the Welsh Forestry Commission tracks in prime condition, then BP Ford drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen and team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Tomanek can expect an even hotter pace in their Focus RS World Rally Cars.
Apart from a spectator-friendly speed test in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, all 17 special stages 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 from the forests to timber yards. Large log piles are a common sight by the edge of the tracks, adding an additional hazard for competitors.
Narrow tree-lined sections high in the Vale of Neath mountains contrast with vast open sections, both on the military areas 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 flowing and invite drivers to attack, but in the wet they can become rutted during the second pass.
Both Ford Focus RS World Car pairings have plenty of experience of this 12th round of the championship. Gardemeister has started the rally seven times and Kresta on three occasions. But, like virtually all their rivals, neither has any real knowledge of summer conditions in the Welsh forests.
Thirty-year-old Gardemeister lies fifth in the drivers' standings after scoring on all but one round to date and has played the major role in Ford holding third in the manufacturers' series. "My target is to recover some lost ground after not scoring on the last round in Germany," he said. "Ford's hold on third place is quite strong but things can change quickly and we would like to strengthen that position. Second place to fifth in the drivers' championship is close and a good result in Britain is necessary to remain involved in that battle.
"I have plenty of experience of this rally. In 1996 it was my second world rally and I have more experience here than anywhere else apart from my home event in Finland. I also drove in the British Championship in 1999 so my understanding of the British forests is good. Last year's event was wet and muddy but if it remains dry this year then it will be extremely fast. I think some people could be in for quite a surprise in those conditions," he added.
Twenty-nine-year-old Kresta did not compete last year, but finished eighth in 2003. "This year's route is quite similar to 2003 so there is no disadvantage from not being here last year," he said. "The weather is probably the most important aspect of the rally. If it's wet, muddy and foggy then conditions can be really difficult. If it stays dry then it's obviously much easier and it could be extremely fast because the road surface is hard. The stages are not technical but some parts are quite narrow, and the speeds are so high that it's important to be careful.
"The rally has similarities with Finland. There are not as many crests and jumps but because the speeds are so high, even if you make a small mistake the time loss can be heavy. I've not been able to test in Britain so it will be important to make full use of the shakedown to finalise the set-up of the Focus. I'll begin with the set-up the team used for last year's rally and see how that feels," he added.
* Ford Focus RS WRCs make up almost 10 percent of the entry list. Latest specification cars for Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud and Antony Warmbold / Michael Orr join the official BP-Ford duo. Eddie Stobart Motorsport has entered 2003-specification cars for Mark Higgins / Bryan Thomas and Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin. Finns Jari-Matti Latvala / Miikka Anttila will also drive a 2003 version while British amateurs Julian Reynolds / Ieuan Thomas will be in a 2001 car.
* BP-Ford has nominated Michelin's Z pattern gravel tyres for the event, which have been highly successful since the launch of the latest BTO version in New Zealand in April. Designed for a clear and hard surface, the Z tyre has a relatively compact tread pattern to ensure the maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the road for the best possible grip and traction. In the unlikely situation of heavy rain, the team can cut the Z tyre to a ZA pattern. It is a more open tread, designed to penetrate the loose surface in search of firmer ground deeper down.
* Wales and British Lions rugby union player Gavin Henson will join the BP-Ford team on the Monday after the rally to enjoy a passenger ride in a Focus RS WRC alongside Gardemeister.
* The Ford Fiesta ST Group N will make its world championship competition debut. Ford and British magazine Autocar have combined to build a car for journalist Chris Harris to drive. He will be co-driven by Richard Tuthill.
The rally follows a virtually identical route to 2004 through the forests of south Wales. However, several stages have been shortened to comply with the FIA's maximum distance and the long Resolfen test on the final day will run in the opposite direction to last year. The main innovation is the introduction of a 1.10km test in Cardiff's 50,000 capacity Millennium Stadium on Saturday evening to replace the city's traditional super special stage. The arena's sliding roof will be closed to make this the first indoor stage in WRC history. After a ceremonial start in Cardiff on Thursday evening, Friday's opening leg is the longest, comprising two loops of stages in Brechfa and the Vale of Neath Forests. Saturday's competition is located further north, close to the Epynt military land, near Brecon. The final day returns to the Vale of Neath, the last test ending in the famous Margam Park. There are 17 stages covering 354.22km of competition in a route of 1252.25.