Title battle takes new twist as BP-Ford bids for Turkish delight
BP-Ford World Rally Team's thrilling late season world title charge heads to Turkey next week with the squad's campaign boosted by a dramatic twist to the championship race. A string of strong points finishes in the second half of the campaign from Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen has enabled BP-Ford to close to within seven points of the leaders in the FIA World Rally Championship's manufacturers' series.
The Blue Oval will aim to continue its recent excellent run of form with the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car on the Rally of Turkey (12 - 15 October) in its quest to close the gap even further with just four rallies remaining.
The harsh environment of the Anatolian mountains high above Turkey's southern coast holiday resorts traditionally takes a high toll on competitors. Cooler and less rough than the savage conditions encountered on the previous event in Cyprus last month, this 13th round of the 16-rally championship is nevertheless one of the most demanding in the series.
The twisty, steep tracks are rocky and have a clay base which has been baked hard by the summer sunshine. However, rain is forecast for rally week and previous years have shown that in such circumstances the roads turn muddy very quickly, cutting up easily and becoming rutted. Temperatures in the rally base at Kemer will near 30C, but the stages climb to 1800 metres so less heat and more airflow from faster roads will bring slightly easier conditions than in Cyprus for hard-working engines and transmissions.
Gronholm has two podium finishes from the rally's three WRC appearances and the 38-year-old Finn has his sights set on nothing less than a win to boost BP-Ford's title hopes and close the gap on Loeb in the drivers' series. He lies 35 points behind Loeb with a maximum 40 still available, but the Frenchman will miss this event through injury.
"I'm not really thinking about the drivers' championship at the moment," said Gronholm. "I will be driving in Turkey to win the rally and then I will go to Australia to try to do the same. I will try to avoid problems, avoid mistakes and then if everything goes well I hope to win this rally. If we keep clear of big problems for the rest of the season then we have a very good chance of winning a championship - and the manufacturers' title looks our best option.
"The roads here are not as rough as Greece and Cyprus for example. They can be rocky in places but unless it rains they are good to drive. If it is wet, they quickly become horrible and muddy and that can be tricky if we're not expecting it," he added.
Like Gronholm, Hirvonen's priority is to support BP-Ford's title push, but the 26-year-old Finn also has his sights set on claiming third in the drivers' series. He is currently just two points behind Dani Sordo after five podiums from the last six rallies. This will be his third start in Turkey, a sixth place finish in 2004 being his best result.
"Turkey is similar to Cyprus but less extreme in every way," he said. "The roads are faster and wider, they are not as rough and the temperatures are a bit cooler. In some places there are stones lying in the road and because the speeds are higher it's easy to damage the car. It has been raining there and while it is dying, I think there will still be damp and muddy places. Even a small amount of rain changes the road surface quickly.
"My tactics will be the same. As a team we need to catch the championship leaders and while we are still behind them in the points table, my approach to rallies will not alter. I need to score good points. If that means I can move ahead of Dani as well, then so much the better, but the manufacturers' championship is our main target," he added.
* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force hard wear gravel tyres and teams are allowed to nominate two tread patterns. The standard 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. It will be available in medium and hard compound. The second pattern is the g-Force gravel H1, a hard compound tyre which is particularly suited to the compacted clay surface on which many of Turkey's stages are based.
* The M-Sport run Stobart-VK Rally Team has entered two 2004-specification Focus RS WRCs for Britons Matthew Wilson / Michael Orr and Finns Kosti Katajamaki / Timo Alanne. Ford Rallye Sport Turkey has entered a 2001-specification Focus RS WRC for Mehmet Besler / Ozden Yilmaz and 2000 versions for Adnan Sarihan / Bahadir Gucenmez and Emre Yurdakul / Afsin Baydar. Four Fiesta ST cars are entered by Turkish crews competing in the country's one-make series.
* Marcus Gronholm will visit Le Mondial de l'Automobile in Paris this weekend. He will complete a range of promotional activities on both Saturday and Sunday as a guest of BP.
The route shows few differences to last year. The holiday resort of Kemer is again the base and home to the single service park. All three legs are located in the complex maze of gravel roads high in the Anatolian mountains to the west, although a new stage just south of the town will be used during the first and last days. Thursday evening's ceremonial start will be held in the larger city of Antalya 40km north and a super special stage at the university on the edge of the city will end the opening two legs. Nine stages will be repeated with just the final test on Sunday used once. Drivers tackle 351.01km of competition in a route of 1201.85km.