BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot today claimed their ninth points result of the season when they finished fifth on the Rally Italia Sardinia. The gruelling three-day event on the sun-baked Mediterranean island...
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot today claimed their ninth points result of the season when they finished fifth on the Rally Italia Sardinia. The gruelling three-day event on the sun-baked Mediterranean island turned into a rally of attrition as demanding gravel tracks took a heavy toll on competitors. However, the strength of the Belgians' Ford Focus RS World Rally Car took them through to a deserved finish on this 13th round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Team-mates Markko Martin and Michael Park were on course to score their third consecutive podium finish until an engine problem sidelined their Castrol-branded Focus RS less than 40km from the finish. Duval's result keeps Ford in second place in the manufacturers' championship with three rounds remaining.
After many years based in the mountains behind the Riviera resort of Sanremo, Italy's round of the series moved to Sardinia for the first time. Competitors tackled 384.23km of competition in a route of 1228.92km. The 19 speed tests ranged from a soft and sandy surface, which quickly became rutted, to a rough and rocky base. All were narrow and twisty and with large stones on the verge, there was absolutely no room for error.
Temperatures topped 30C on each day, and the heat combined with the rough tracks required competitive rubber from the BP-Ford team's tyre partner, Michelin. Even when the perhaps inevitable punctures or broken wheels occurred, the French company's ATS mousse system kept the tyres inflated.
Duval and Prevot started today's final leg in sixth, despite losing 5min 30sec yesterday after hitting a wall and badly damaging their car's rear suspension. They cruised through the final six special stages on the slopes of Monte Limbara, climbing to fifth following Martin's retirement. Their only difficulty came during the opening three tests when they were hampered by the dust of a slower competitor immediately ahead of them.
"It has been a difficult event and I'm happy to see the finish," said 23-year-old Duval. "I've not had full confidence this weekend. The handling was unpredictable for the first two days, although it felt much better today. The roads here are very specialised. They're twisty, rough and narrow with many big stones to hit. I've not really enjoyed the stages and maybe the best plan for me is to go back to the asphalt in Sanremo! The team hasn't had much luck this weekend but we've finished in the points again so that is a positive thing to take away."
Martin and Park began the day just 2.9sec behind third-placed Carlos Sainz. The BP-Ford team fitted revised shock absorbers to the 28-year-old Estonian driver's car and he was second fastest on each of the opening two stages to move ahead of Sainz and into a podium position. However, just 3km from the end of the final stage of the loop, engine problems brought him to a halt.
"The turbo failed," said Martin. "It made a big hole in the housing and because oil was leaking onto the hot engine, every time we tried to start the car, the turbo caught fire. We put out the flames and blocked the pipes which feed oil to cool the turbo. That prevented the engine from catching fire again and eventually we finished the stage. We tried so hard to reach the next control point before exceeding the time limit but arrived there just two minutes too late and had to withdraw."
Martin knew that even if he could coax the car to the finish, he would have scored valuable points for Ford. "The car is so strong that I think it might have made it. The problem was the exhaust gases coming into the cockpit. It was bad enough on the short section from the stage to the control point and I'm not sure we could have coped with the fumes. We were in a good position to finish third. Our tyres were chosen with the final stages this afternoon in mind and I think we would have taken third," he added.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said it appeared that Martin's retirement was caused by a turbo sensor failure, which led to the turbo itself exploding. "It's the first time we have experienced that problem," he said. "Having got Markko into a podium place after a difficult rally, I'm disappointed that he retired. Francois gained valuable experience for the future but I must say that this was a much harder rally than we all envisaged."