Ford keen to turn up heat in Swedish ice lands In stark contrast to the glamorous surroundings of the opening event in Monte Carlo, the barren, ice-bound Swedish countryside plays host to the second round of the FIA World Rally Championship. ...
Ford keen to turn up heat in Swedish ice lands
In stark contrast to the glamorous surroundings of the opening event in Monte Carlo, the barren, ice-bound Swedish countryside plays host to the second round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The harsh terrain and often numbing cold offers a cruel environment for competition but Ford Rallye Sport will start the Swedish Rally (31 Jan - 3 Feb) intent on maintaining their strong start in the French Alps.
A double points finish on the Monte Carlo Rally from third-placed Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya and fourth-placed Colin McRae and Nicky Grist allied with a 100 per cent finishing rate for the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car represented an excellent start to the season for the new-look team.
The surface switches from asphalt in France to snow and ice-covered gravel in Sweden. Despite the seemingly treacherous conditions, the rally is one of the fastest in the 14-round championship as the cars' tyres are fitted with studs to bite into the icy surface and provide grip equal to normal road conditions.
The rally is one which Madrid-based Sainz has yet to win. But five podium finishes, including four consecutive second places, in just seven starts is clear evidence of his abilities on the surface.
"Back in the days when teams didn't have to tackle all the rallies, it seemed that I was always in a team that didn't go to Sweden," explained 39-year-old Sainz. "I first drove there in 1995 and enjoy the rally very much. I would probably say it's my favourite rally of the championship. I enjoy ski-ing and driving in those conditions is similar. It's a great feeling to go fast on snow and ice, whether on skis or in a car.
"As a team we were very consistent in Monte Carlo and the rally was good for us. I think we can be just as strong in Sweden and our pre-rally test will be very important for us. We had little snow in our test there before Christmas and we want to try a few things before the rally starts so we have plenty of work to do now," added Sainz.
The Swedish Rally was McRae's first world event in 1987 and it is one of his favourites. No driver from outside the Nordic countries has ever won the rally in its 51-year history but the 33-year-old Scot firmly believes he can end that pattern.
"There are some rallies this season where I've targeted a solid points finish rather than go out and try to win and some where I feel we can win. Sweden is one that we have targeted for a victory and depending on the weather conditions, I think that's genuinely possible," he said.
"If the rally is cold with plenty of snow, we'll be happy. It means the roads will be lined by snow banks which we use to 'lean' the car into on the outside of bends to keep it on the right line. You can often get away with a mistake in Sweden that you wouldn't on other rallies because the banks keep the car on the road," he added.
Ford Rallye Sport team-mates Markko Martin and Michael Park are confident of building on their Focus RS debut in Monte Carlo where they finished 12th on stages totally new to them. This will be the 26-year-old Estonian driver's fourth Swedish start and he plans to adopt a more attacking policy on the stages.
"It's the most enjoyable rally of the year for me and I would like to drive as fast as possible to take maximum enjoyment," said 26-year-old Martin. "I tested for two days in Sweden before Christmas and feel confident in snowy conditions. I've done the rally three times before and on two occasions I've surprised myself with my result so I hope I can do that again. A top six points finish is my target."
The rally marks the debut of Francois Duval and Jean-Marc Fortin in a Focus RS. The 21-year-old Belgian has a limited programme of world rallies alongside his Junior World Championship campaign in a Ford Puma, which he leads after victory in Monte Carlo. "This will be an exciting moment in my career," said Duval. "I'm really looking forward to driving the Focus RS in competition although I realise I have much to learn about driving a World Rally Car. To finish the rally is my target."
Ford Rallye Sport team director Malcolm Wilson looked ahead to Sweden with confidence. "We were delighted with our performance in Monte Carlo. The new developments on the Focus RS were well-received by the drivers and the performance boost was clear for all to see. If we can translate that progress from asphalt to the winter conditions we'll experience in Sweden, and there's no reason why we can't, then I think we can be in the points again," said Wilson.
In The Spotlight
Much preparation before the rally and much deliberation during the event goes into tyre stud selection. While the ideal stud will cut into the frozen surface to provide perfect grip, the wrong choice can be costly. Too short a stud will not penetrate the ice causing the car to slide around too much. Too long a stud will protrude into the gravel underneath the ice, damaging the tips or even ripping the studs from the tyres. "The grip offered by studs is amazing, especially in slow corners," said Martin. "They give you incredible traction to pull you out of slow bends. Sometimes it feels even better than dry asphalt."
For the first time the rally is based around just one service park in Hagfors, north of the rally base in Karlstad. The more compact route eliminates the stages to the east towards Grangesberg and Borlange. It begins with a ceremonial start in Karlstad on Thursday evening and continues the next day with five tests, including the daunting Granberget, at 40.51km the longest of the rally. The second day includes a second run through Granberget while the final leg finishes with a tough 39km test which ends on the very edge of Hagfors itself. The 381.96km of competition in a total route of 1876.49km is split evenly between the three days, with drivers tackling 16 stages in total.