Ford BP Rallye Sport begins the busiest month in the history of the FIA World Rally Championship next week. The Rallye Sanremo (2 - 5 October) begins a quickfire tour of the Mediterranean which brings three asphalt events in just four weekends...
Ford BP Rallye Sport begins the busiest month in the history of the FIA World Rally Championship next week. The Rallye Sanremo (2 - 5 October) begins a quickfire tour of the Mediterranean which brings three asphalt events in just four weekends and provides the opportunity for the Focus RS World Rally Car to repeat the stunning performance shown on its sealed surface debut in July.
October's schedule places enormous demands on all teams, with rallies in Corsica and Spain quickly following the Italian classic, which is based in the genteel resort of Sanremo itself. But it is a time-table the Ford BP team is looking forward to following a superb asphalt debut with the 2003-specification Focus RS World Rally Car in Germany in July. Markko Märtin and Michael Park led the Rallye Deutschland on the opening day and won 10 of the event's 22 speed tests.
Rallye Sanremo is the first traditional pure asphalt event of the 14-round championship. Ford BP's confidence is based on the pre-Germany thoughts of team director Malcolm Wilson and technical director Christian Loriaux that the Focus RS would be more suited to October's events than the unusual roads found in Germany.
The speed tests in the mountains above the Italian Riviera are narrow and twisty, and drivers must expect tricky conditions. The weather can change quickly from sunshine to rain, creating all kinds of difficulties in tyre selection. Even when the rain stops and the sun returns, water flowing from roadside banks creates unexpected wet sections which prove even more hazardous in braking areas. Many roads lie beneath trees in shaded areas, the canopy ensuring the sun never reaches the damp patches to dry them out, and in the early days of Autumn, falling leaves create a greasy and slippery surface.
Märtin and Park, winners twice already this season, have started the event five times. Their best result came last year when they finished fifth in a Focus RS but the 27-year-old Estonian is confident of improving on that on the rally he regards as the most difficult of the trio of October asphalt events.
"I always expected the new Focus to be good on asphalt but I admit I was a little surprised just how good the package was in Germany," said Märtin. "Hopefully we can use that performance as a base for the more traditional asphalt events. Sanremo is the most difficult of the three. The roads are narrow and bumpy and the weather is inconsistent. On the south facing side of the mountains the sun can be shining and the roads dry, but over the top of the col on the north facing side it can be almost dark under the trees and quite humid. When you encounter these conditions on the same stage it's difficult to judge the pace and make the right tyre choice."
Märtin is eagerly looking forward to Saturday's double pass over the Teglia stage, more than 50km long. He is one of the neatest and tidiest drivers in the series and is confident Michelin's tyres will have the durability for this potentially decisive test, especially as the Italian asphalt is not regarded as excessively abrasive.
"If we make the correct tyre choice it should be fine to approach it like any other shorter test. I'm looking forward to it, although it will be tough. To drive a stage of more than 50km on asphalt will be hard," he added.
Ford BP team-mate François Duval has twice before sampled the Italian roads, on both occasions in a two-wheel drive Ford Puma Super 1600 car in the Junior World Championship. The 22-year-old Belgian was second in the category in 2001 and he and co-driver Stéphane Prévot are looking forward to three consecutive rallies on Duval's preferred asphalt surface. "We must make completely new pace notes for the rally," said Duval. "But because the event is likely to move to Sardinia next year, there is not much point in spending the rally itself perfecting our pace notes. This is one event where the final result is more important to us than correcting the notes for future seasons.
"I like this rally but the long Teglia stage on Saturday will be hard, especially on the brakes. More than 50km of left-foot braking will be difficult and it will be important not to drive too fast at the start to ensure there are no braking problems later in the test. I prefer shorter stages and it would be better for me if this one was split into a 20km test and a 30km stage," added Duval.
Rallye Sanremo is one of only three rallies in the 2003 calendar that Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen have tackled before. "It's an easier event than Rallye Deutschland because the roads aren't so fast and are twistier," said 23-year-old Hirvonen, who will be behind the wheel of a 2002-specification Focus RS, run by M-Sport. "Obviously the surface is different, but I think the stages are twistier than Greece but not as bad as Cyprus. I learned much about asphalt driving in Germany, especially that it's not easy. It's crucial to look after the tyres to ensure the grip remains good. That means no hard braking or unnecessary sliding but when you're fighting for places that's not so easy."
* Ford BP are preparing for the rally with a four-day test this week on roads north of Genoa. Both Duval and Märtin are scheduled to drive for two days, the Belgian starting the programme yesterday.
* Cosworth Racing will introduce an upgrade to the Duratec R engine in the Focus RS cars. Engineers have developed a new way of integrating the engine control systems to maximise performance and improve driveability. The system has been widely tested on asphalt but this will be the first time it has been used in competition. Alex Hitzinger, head of the Cosworth WRC programme, said: "We're still at an early stage in the development of this strategy and we won't use it to its full potential yet."
* The Focus RS cars will also feature improvements to the transmission with a lighter bellhousing and revised hydraulic system. Ford BP technical director Christian Loriaux said the new bellhousing has removed weight from the front axle while the hydraulics modifications have improved response time in the differentials.
* Ford BP sporting advisor Phil Short is enjoying a successful season in regional sprint and hillclimb competitions in northern England. Driving a 1380cc Mini Cooper, he has claimed 11 wins and set two class records as well as winning his class in the Midland Speed Championship last weekend. His car is also shortlisted for the best prepared vehicle in the championship.