Ford's ice-cool youngsters warm to Sweden's snow. Sweden's numbing cold and barren, ice-bound countryside provide possibly the harshest environment of the FIA World Rally Championship season and a cruel contrast to the glitz of the opening round...
Ford's ice-cool youngsters warm to Sweden's snow.
Sweden's numbing cold and barren, ice-bound countryside provide possibly the harshest environment of the FIA World Rally Championship season and a cruel contrast to the glitz of the opening round in Monte Carlo. But for Ford Rallye Sport's hot-shot young drivers, the winter wonderland provides the perfect opportunity to turn up the heat on their rivals on what is one of their favourite events of the year.
The Swedish Rally (6 - 9 February), round two of the 14-event series, is the championship's only pure winter event and the fast and flowing snow-covered roads are a drivers' delight. Markko Märtin and François Duval, both points scorers in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars on the Monte Carlo Rally after finishing fourth and seventh respectively, and third driver Mikko Hirvonen will be keen to maintain Ford's impressive start to the season which put the team in second in the manufacturers' standings.
The winter experienced in the French Alps is far removed from the conditions likely to be experienced in Sweden. The weather forecast suggests they could be ideal for a classic Swedish Rally. Plunging temperatures this week have created a solid ice base on top of the gravel roads and with more snow predicted there should be plenty of snow banks for drivers to 'lean' their cars into to guide them around corners at maximum speed. Such conditions will delight the Swedes and Finns, who have never been beaten in the 42-year history of the rally.
The Focus RS cars combat those seemingly treacherous roads with skinny Michelin tyres, fitted with tungsten-tipped steel studs and available in different lengths, to bite into the icy surface and provide remarkable grip that is even better than on gravel. As a result the rally is one of the fastest and most spectacular in the championship. The difficulties arise if milder weather sets in. The roads thaw, the studs pierce the ice into the gravel beneath, which in turn rips them from the rubber blocks on the tyres and leaves drivers with precious little grip.
Estonian Märtin and co-driver Michael Park are big fans of the rally. "It's one of my favourites. If the conditions are right the roads are great fun to drive on. They're fast and straight with a lot of fifth and sixth gear driving which I really enjoy. The Focus RS and Michelin tyres should be a good package so I think it could be another good event for us. A couple of years ago I was fast enough to be on course for a podium finish until I punctured so hopefully I'm still that good!" said 27-year-old Märtin, who will start his fourth Swedish Rally.
'Snow banks can help but can also destroy your rally'
"It takes a little time to adapt to the right driving style but there is more room for mistakes there. You can use the snow banks to help the car round bends but you must be careful because while the car usually bounces off them they can also drag you in and pull you off the road. They can help but they can also destroy your rally," he added.
Duval finished 10th in Sweden last year on his debut in a Focus RS and, like Märtin, enjoys the snow and ice. "I enjoyed the rally last year and like driving in winter weather," said the Belgian. "There are a few things you have to remember about driving in these conditions. The tyres themselves are not in contact with the road surface. It's the studs that touch the ground and the car moves around a little more under braking for corners but the level of grip is just incredible.
"There will be more drivers in Sweden in World Rally Cars than there were in Monte Carlo so the competition will be tougher. The Finns and Swedes have a big advantage so if I was able to match my result in Monte then I would be happy," added Duval. Hirvonen will be competing in Sweden for the first time. "I've never competed there before but I think the stages will be a little better for me than those in Monte Carlo," said the Finn. "I'm used to winter conditions because there are three rounds in the Finnish championship held on snow and ice so I'm looking forward to it. I've been given a free choice on how I drive this rally by team director Malcolm Wilson but after my accident on the opening round I just want to finish. I want to gain good experience of the stages so I won't take any risks," he said.
Ford Rallye Sport team director Malcolm Wilson is confident of a strong result after the team's impressive start to the year in Monte Carlo. "The results of Markko and François there were a great boost to us all. It's always a tough task to match the Nordic drivers on a winter rally but we believe that the Focus and Michelin's tyres will work well in Sweden and I'm optimistic of another good performance, especially from Markko," said Wilson.
* The second phase of the test schedule for the 2003 Focus RS WRC started immediately after the Monte Carlo Rally. The weeklong research and development programme included work in a wind tunnel in Germany and durability testing at Ford's Lommel test track in Belgium.
* Six privately-entered Focus RS cars will compete in Sweden. The line-up will be headed by Janne Tuohino (FIN), winner of the Arctic Lapland Rally in Finland earlier this month, and Tomasz Kuchar (PL), who begins his WRC programme here. Also competing will be Antony Warmbold (D), Jari Viita (FIN), Jon Papadimitriou (GR) and Andreas Eriksson (S).
* The nine Ford Focus RS WRC cars entered comprise more than 10 percent of the rally's entry.
* A three-day pre-rally test begins today (Friday) in the area close to Torsby. Duval will drive the first day with Märtin testing for the next two.
The rally is again based around a single service park at Hagfors, north of the host city of Karlstad. The route follows a familiar format after a ceremonial start in Karlstad on Thursday evening with most of the speed tests clustered close to the service park. The opening day, which covers 125.79km of competition, includes the daunting 43.69km Granberget test, which is repeated at the start of the second leg. The second day is the longest of the event, comprising 140.37km and both the first two legs end with a short floodlit stage in the ski area on the edge of Hagfors. The final day takes in 120.75km, ending with a tough 39.85km test which finishes in the same area. Drivers face 386.91km of competition in a route of 1935.13km with just the floodlit stage and the 31.66km Brunnberg new to the event this year.