Corsican weather holds key to BP-Ford challenge With just three of the 16 rounds of the FIA World Rally Championship season remaining, it is late in the calendar for the BP-Ford World Rally Team to break new ground. But next week's Rallye de ...
Corsican weather holds key to BP-Ford challenge
With just three of the 16 rounds of the FIA World Rally Championship season remaining, it is late in the calendar for the BP-Ford World Rally Team to break new ground. But next week's Rallye de France (14 - 17 October) is the first traditional pure asphalt event of the year. The mountain roads on the island of Corsica are likely to pose the usual challenges which have earned the event its reputation as one of the most difficult in the series.
Narrow, long and twisty speed tests on the western side of the craggy island will demand precision driving from Markko Märtin and Michael Park and BP-Ford team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot in their Focus RS World Rally Cars. That is within their control, but what is not is the unpredictable weather which has played such an important part in the rally's 47-year history.
The weather is notoriously changeable in October, the mountainous terrain and island location only adding to the unpredictability. Dry roads and warm sunshine can quickly turn to torrential rain and streaming asphalt and vice-versa. It places huge importance on the accuracy of weather reports and predictions from team personnel stationed in the mountains - key factors in the tyre selection which can turn a rally for or against a driver.
The rally is the second in the championship's three-event Autumn mini-tour of the Mediterranean and, together with the next round in Spain, one of just two traditional asphalt rallies remaining. It has evolved considerably in the past decade. Many of the incredibly twisty sections, which followed the contours of a mountain around the rock face on one side with huge drops into the sea on the other, have been dropped. And many roads, which were often covered in broken asphalt that caused high tyre wear, have been resurfaced and are smoother. However, the asphalt remains abrasive, providing good grip but requiring hard-wearing tyres.
Märtin, fourth in the drivers' championship in his Castrol-branded Focus RS, is looking to improve on a best result of sixth on his Corsican debut in 2001. "It's quite a straight-forward rally if conditions are consistent," said the 28-year-old Estonian. "But the weather is the main challenge. An island setting and the mountains mean things can change quickly and it's easy to be caught out on the wrong tyres for the conditions. I don't like mixed conditions at all.
"The trend in recent years has been for smoother and less twisty roads but last year's event had some bumpy roads in there again. There are quite a few new roads this year so we'll have to see what they are like in the recce. It's a tricky event to practise because some stages pass through villages and it's difficult to make accurate notes there because of the traffic and cars parked on the natural driving line. The Focus has proved its pace on asphalt and I hope we can finally take a win on that surface with this car," he added.
Märtin also welcomed the return of safety (gravel) crews, which will be allowed to drive the stages before they close in the morning to relay the latest data on changing road conditions. They have been banned since January's Monte Carlo Rally but the FIA has since sanctioned their use for the final two asphalt rallies. "That's a positive decision which will help improve safety for the morning pass over the stages," he said.
The Rallye de France provides Duval's best opportunity yet of claiming his maiden world rally victory. It is his favourite event of the season and, in contrast to his team-mate, the 23-year-old Belgian relishes the prospect of changing conditions - the type of weather which the long-range forecast suggests is probable.
"If the conditions are changeable, 50 percent wet and 50 per cent dry, then that will be good for me and a win would be possible. I'm used to driving in those conditions because that's what it was like in Belgium when I started my career. If it's dry I won't be so happy because then the advantage won't rest with me," said Duval, who claimed a career-best second in Germany in wet and slippery conditions in August.
"Last year I finished third and a podium place is what I'm aiming for again. The roads are twisty, but quite fast in places, and the grip is generally good. I have a one-day test immediately before the recce starts which will allow me to perfect the set-up of the car and give me confidence going into the rally," added Duval, who has started the event three times, twice in a Focus RS and once in a two-wheel drive Ford Puma.
* Both Märtin and Duval will test in Corsica prior to the practice period. Duval will drive on Monday with his team-mate taking over on Tuesday.
* A fishermen's blockade of the port in Ajaccio prevented the team's support vehicles making the short ferry crossing from the previous round in Sardinia to Corsica as scheduled. Instead of making the journey at the start of the week, the team had to wait in Sardinia until the strike was cancelled and they could sail on Thursday.
* The BP-Ford team has nominated Michelin's N and TA tyres for the event. The N patterned rubber is suitable for dry or humid conditions and engineers can cut grooves into the rubber to match the tyres as closely as possible to the conditions at the time. The TA 'intermediate' tyre is used in wet weather and additional cuts can be added to the rubber to clear the water if heavy rain soaks the asphalt. Both patterns will be available in varying compounds and construction.
The rally incorporates significant changes from the 2003 version with half the event's 12 special stages either new or revised, and a new central service park in Ajaccio's port. However, it retains its compact nature with more than 36 percent of the 1060.72km total distance being competitive. The rally begins with a ceremonial start in the heart of Ajaccio on Thursday evening. Each leg comprises two identical loops of two stages, split by service back in Ajaccio. The opening day is located in the mountains south-east of the town, near Propriano. The second leg is the longest of the rally at 154.36km and is based south of Ajaccio. The final day remains unchanged from the 2002 and 2003 events and is located north of the town. As usual, all the tests are long and demanding. The second leg is especially tough with stages of 36.24km and 40.94km, the longest of the event. With an average stage distance of 32.31km, the rally has the highest average of any event, apart from the non-uniform Safari Rally in Kenya, in recent times.