This Week in Ford Racing October 5, 1999
FIA World Rally
McRae and Ford aim for a fast finish in Sanremo
For FIA World Rally Championship competitors the view of the Italian Riviera and the final rays of sunshine signifying the end of the European summer also indicate that the 14-round series is approaching its climax. For Ford Martini World Rally Team drivers Colin McRae and Simon Jean-Joseph, the Sanremo Rally (11-13 Oct) offers the final opportunity of the year to display the potential of their Ford Focus rally cars on asphalt.
The three-day event, 12th round of the championship, is the third and final rally of the season to be held on pure asphalt. The mountain roads behind the genteel coastal resort have often been the battleground for titanic struggles as the championship contenders scrap for points which can make the difference between glory or disappointment come season end.
McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist's hopes of a world title are over but that has done nothing to dissuade the 31-year-old Scottish driver, twice a winner of the rally, from the belief that his Focus World Rally Car can be a major contender in Italy.
"I think we have to be realistic. After our recent run of non-finishes our primary target has to be to finish the rally," said McRae. "But although we've had a number of retirements, we've also continued to prove the Focus is highly competitive, setting fastest times on virtually every event. We've recorded quickest times on every asphalt rally this season and there's no reason why that can't be the case again.
"Sanremo can be a tricky rally because the second leg is totally different from the first and last days. The stages are very narrow and drivers cutting the corners drag a lot of loose gravel right onto the driving line, which makes it very slippery for those following," added McRae.
Ford Martini team-mates and asphalt experts Jean-Joseph and co-driver Fred Gallagher, driving a Focus for the first time since May's Tour of Corsica, will also be wary of the hazards lying in wait on the mountain roads above Sanremo, tackled during the first and final legs.
"I've not competed on this rally before but I've been told how tricky those stages can be," said the Martinique-based Jean-Joseph. "The leaves are starting to fall from the trees into the road and because the sun doesn't reach some areas you can drive from bone dry asphalt into the shade where damp and slippery leaves can make it very difficult, especially under braking.
"Five months is a long time to go without driving the Focus competitively but I've competed on two rallies during that time in a Ford Puma so it shouldn't take long to get back into my rhythm," added the 30-year-old driver.
Norway's Petter Solberg and co-driver Phil Mills will be behind the wheel of a third Focus, the 24-year-old Scandinavian competing on his first asphalt world championship rally. "This will be another excellent opportunity to gain more experience with a view to the future," said Solberg. "Phil has competed here before so I will be looking towards his knowledge of the rally to help us along."
The Ford Martini team completed a highly successful three-day test in southern France at the end of last month, completing more than 600km of asphalt driving and trying modifications with both Sanremo and the 2000 season in mind.
Team director Malcolm Wilson said: "It was an excellent three days. Thomas Rådström carried out the driving and we looked at a whole range of issues for next year, including the engine and the transmission.
"As far as Sanremo is concerned, the Focus cars will be using different anti-roll bars and different ride height settings from our last asphalt outing," said Wilson. "The ride height will be 40mm lower which obviously lowers the car's centre of gravity while a revised anti-roll bar set-up will help lessen the roll. As a result of the changes we've re-designed the damper and spring lengths. We tested these modifications in France and there was a noticeable improvement."
Both the first and final legs of the rally are based around Sanremo itself, competitors racing through the mountains before descending for regular service opportunities in the centre of town, just a few metres from the Mediterranean waves. The middle leg is very different, drivers making the long journey north to the Savona region for stages around the town of Acqui Terme.
Traditionally the rally attracts some of the biggest crowds in the World Championship season. It is a common sight to witness spectators camping out alongside the special stages or sleeping in their cars to ensure themselves of a prime viewing location for the following day's action. The rally format is very simple with each of the nine stages run twice to provide competitors with 18 stages covering almost 385km in a total route of 1385km. The second leg is by far the longest with more than 167km of competitive driving but the final day includes the massive 40.61km Colle Langan stage, which is run twice and takes drivers across the backbone of the mountain range.