Sardinia kicks off European gravel sector for Focus rally car The Rally d'Italia-Sardegna (18 - 21 May) provides the first opportunity for the BP-Ford World Rally Team to showcase the new generation Focus RS World Rally Car on a gravel event in...
Sardinia kicks off European gravel sector for Focus rally car
The Rally d'Italia-Sardegna (18 - 21 May) provides the first opportunity for the BP-Ford World Rally Team to showcase the new generation Focus RS World Rally Car on a gravel event in Europe. Although the FIA World Rally Championship season is nearing the halfway point, with the Sardinia event being round seven of 16, remarkably this is the first European dirt rally of the campaign and the first of six in the series.
However, the Focus RS WRC has already shown its credentials on gravel rallies in Mexico and Argentina. Both Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen held top three places on the opening day in Mexico. And Gronholm led for much of the first leg in Argentina last month, going on to win more speed tests than any other driver.
Although the Mediterranean holiday island is a relative newcomer to the championship (this is the rally's third year in the WRC), the characteristics of the Sardinian roads are well known by the BP-Ford drivers. Gronholm and Hirvonen competed there in 2004 and 2005 and both tested widely in two separate sessions there during the past six weeks.
The rally is based in the industrial town of Olbia, in the north of the island, and starts and finishes in Porto Cervo, one of Europe's most exclusive resorts. The gravel special stages contain a mix of narrow, twisty roads and fast and flowing tracks that put the event into the medium-fast category. A fine sandy surface masks a hard base beneath and the early starters will sweep the loose gravel clear to leave a cleaner driving line for those behind.
The hard surface and air temperatures that are forecast to climb into the high 20s will demand strong durability from the Focus RS cars' BFGoodrich tyres. BP-Ford will have new construction rubber, designed to improve precision on average and high-speed corners, with which Gronholm and Hirvonen were impressed during testing.
Thirty-eight-year-old Gronholm, who lies second in the drivers' championship, finished third in Sardinia last year. "The rally has a mix of everything," he said. "Some of the stages are quite tight while others are more open and faster. Quite a lot of the competitive distance is new for this year and I think these roads will be faster than the ones that have been dropped. It's not one of my favourite rallies but neither is it one that I really dislike.
"It's important to score good points here and my target is clear - to win. The car has shown it is fast on gravel but my mistake in Mexico and a problem in Argentina meant that I didn't score the points I feel we deserved. But it's also important to remember that this is still a new car and we continue to fine-tune it as the season progresses. This will be the first time in competition in Sardinia with this Focus RS and I'm sure we will learn more about it during the event," added the Finn.
Hirvonen surprised many in Sardinia last year by taking the challenge to world champion Sebastien Loeb in a privately-entered Focus RS on the opening leg - which he ended in third. "Last year was good for me until I made a mistake on the second day," said the 25-year-old Finn. "I had a good start position which meant the roads had been cleaned of gravel by the time I started the stages. I have a good start position again this year and I hope this will give me an advantage on the opening morning. I prefer the wider roads because when it's narrow and there are bushes and rocks close to the edge of the road, it's difficult to make pace notes. The temptation is to put as much as possible into the notes but then I find that there is too much in there.
"The tyres will be important. I think it's going to be hot and the heat and hard roads mean that endurance will be vital. We have some new tyres available which will be good. It's not easy for BFGoodrich to improve its tyres because they are already very good, but I was pleased with these during the tests. They seem faster in every area," he added.
* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force 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. As temperatures are expected to be high, the tyres will be available in medium and hard compounds.
* The team completed a successful six-day test in Sardinia earlier this month. Test driver Roman Kresta covered 500km on the opening two days testing BFGoodrich tyres in preparation for next month's Acropolis Rally in Greece. Hirvonen then covered 400km during which he finalised his car set-up for Sardinia and tested tyres. Gronholm completed the programme by covering another 400km on the final two days, achieving the same targets as his team-mate.
* The privately run Stobart-VK-M-Sport Ford Rally Team has entered three 2004-specification Focus RS WRCs. Britain's Matthew Wilson and Michael Orr and Finns Kosti Katajamaki / Timo Alanne will be nominated for points while Argentines Luis Perez Companc and Jose Maria Volta will also start. Irish crew Gareth MacHale and Paul Nagle will also drive a privately-entered 2004-specification Focus RS. The rally is the fifth round of the Junior World Rally Championship and Britons Barry Clark and Scott Martin will drive a Fiesta ST. Eight crews will also chase points on the Fiesta SportingTrophy International, of which this is the third round and the first gravel rally in the series.
The route has changed considerably with four brand new stages. Fifty-two per cent of the competitive distance is new as organisers have dropped some of the narrowest and most twisty tracks in favour of more flowing roads. In addition the single service park returns to the port area in Olbia at Cala Saccaia while Thursday's ceremonial start moves back to the exclusive coastal town of Porto Cervo. The opening day on the gravel roads of the Nuoro area contains one new stage while Saturday's leg, a mix of tests used in 2004 and 2005, includes the long Monte Cerno stage and the spectacular 'camel humps' jump. The final leg north of Olbia includes two new tests in the Gallura area which were formerly used on the Costa Smeralda Rally. All three legs comprise three stages used twice and the 18 tests cover 344.94km in a route of 1140.18km.