Ford Rallye Sport faces the boulder-strewn mountain tracks and searing temperatures of the Acropolis Rally (5 - 8 June) in Greece intent on extending its mastery of the toughest event in the FIA World Rally Championship. Victory in the extreme ...
Ford Rallye Sport faces the boulder-strewn mountain tracks and searing temperatures of the Acropolis Rally (5 - 8 June) in Greece intent on extending its mastery of the toughest event in the FIA World Rally Championship. Victory in the extreme conditions offered by one of the sport's classic rallies would be the fourth consecutive Acropolis win for the Focus World Rally Car and, just as importantly, a maiden success for the radical new 2003 version which has shown such potential on its first two outings.
The challenge offered by the Acropolis, the first of two hot weather, rough road events, cannot be underestimated. High summer in Greece can bring air temperatures of over 35°C, in-car temperatures in excess of 55°C and gravel tracks littered with potentially car-breaking boulders and unforgiving base rock jutting through the surface. It is a hostile environment which poses the harshest of tests and only the most reliable cars and the fittest drivers can prevent victory dreams turning into a Greek tragedy.
Ford Rallye Sport's usual line-up of Markko Märtin and Michael Park, François Duval and Stéphane Prévot and Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will be supplemented by a fourth official entry for Finn Jari-Matti Latvala and Welsh co-driver Carl Williamson. Eighteen-year-old Latvala, who studies at a sports school near his home in Tuuri, will therefore become the youngest ever driver to pilot an official manufacturer-entered car on a world rally.
Märtin has always been fast in Greece, despite admitting that the Acropolis is not one of his favourite events, and was a clear leader in 2002 until a puncture deprived him of what looked certain to be his first world rally win. It is a punishing event for Ford's tyre partner, Michelin. The abrasive roads produce high tyre wear and while the logical solution would be to use harder compound rubber, that reduces grip which in turn generates wheelspin and more wear. So Michelin's challenge is to find a compromise which offers rubber that is durable enough to survive the long stages but which also offers good grip.
"Although the stages are rough it's still flat out from start to finish," said 27-year-old Märtin. "We have to be concerned about the rocks but the main thing to worry about is tyre wear. Because the roads are abrasive, it's important to ensure the tyres last throughout a group of special stages. It's no good being fast on the first of a group but destroying the tyres and struggling through the next two tests, because the time gained on the first one, and more, will disappear. We've done one rough rally already this season, in Turkey, but that was different because it was colder. Temperature makes a big difference to tyre wear but we know Michelin is strong in rough conditions and they should be good.
"I was disappointed to lose my lead last year. Many people have said I must be even more determined to win in Greece this year but I want to win every rally, not just the Acropolis. I will go out and do the best I can this year and I won't be thinking about what happened in 2002," he added.
Twenty-two-year-old Duval will start his third Acropolis, having competed there twice in a two-wheel drive Ford Puma in the Junior World Championship. "I enjoy the difficult rallies like this," he said. "This event has similar conditions to those in Turkey (where Duval finished third), which I really liked. I'm not worried by the rough roads because the Focus is strong and has a good record on tough rallies. I won't push too hard on the first day to try to avoid problems, and then, if things are going well, I'll try to increase the pace for the final two legs.
"I have good experience of this rally but it's hard to make a comparison between a two-wheel drive Puma and a four-wheel drive Focus. The speed and braking distances vary a lot and we'll have to take that into consideration with the pace notes," added Duval. Hirvonen, also 22, scored his first world rally point on his Argentine debut earlier this month. "Again this is another new rally for me," he said. "I'm lucky to be able to talk to Markko to find out what to expect from Greece. He's always helpful and has constructive ideas. He knows how to get the best from the Focus and encourages me to think for myself and try my own ways of doing things. The fact that the Focus is so strong and reliable is a great confidence boost for me and we've seen how well it has performed at the Acropolis Rally in the past.
"I've been delighted with the way our pace notes have worked this year. Perhaps I've been a little too cautious on previous events, as the stages do differ between recce pace and competition speed, so we've written notes to compensate. This is coming together very well and I'll start to push myself a little more now that I have more experience behind the wheel," he added.
Latvala made his Focus debut on the opening round of the British Championship in April but this will be only his second world rally: "Because I've done one rally with the Focus in Britain, I'm more confident for the Acropolis but it will be difficult for us and the most important thing is to finish. I've been talking with my engineer Esko Reiners, who is Tommi Mäkinen's former engineer, about what is a sensible speed to drive on the rough roads. It's a big challenge for me and I haven't been able to prepare as fully as I would like because I've been busy at school. I've been practising making pace notes in Finland and I think I must make a few changes. The main thing is to be careful with distances," he said.
The team successfully completed its first major asphalt test with the new Focus RS WRC in mid-May when Märtin and Duval covered more than 800km in four days' driving on roads close to Gap, in southern France. Technical director Christian Loriaux was happy with the performance of new transmission parts, which are expected to be introduced for the Rallye Deutschland in July, and both drivers were delighted with their first taste of the Focus on Michelin rubber on clean asphalt.
Statistics from the first five rallies of the season show that Märtin has been the most consistent manufacturer driver. Figures comparing drivers' stage performances to the fastest time, show that the Estonian tops the list with an average just 0.27sec/km slower than the pace calculated by taking the fastest time from every stage held this season.
Two of Ford Rallye Sport's drivers have resorted to extreme measures to prepare for the heat in Greece. Mikko Hirvonen has spent much time since the Rally Argentina sitting in a sauna while Carl Williamson has switched the central heating to the highest setting at his home in Wales!
The Acropolis, celebrating its 50th anniversary, is another rally which has undergone major changes. The base has moved north from Itea to Lamia, which will host the sole service park, the start and finish of every leg. However, Thursday evening's start ceremony will remain at its traditional location in front of the Acropolis, high above the centre of ancient Athens.
The opening two legs cover classic mountain stages close to Parnassos National Park and contain only a few minor changes to the 2002 itinerary. Both end with a super special stage close to Lilea, where the service park used to be located. The third, and shortest, leg tackles tests around the Timphristos mountains to the north-west. It contains superb roads that have not been on the schedule for many years but around which the rally developed its famous reputation, including a new version of the famous Tarzan test.
Drivers face 22 stages in total covering 398.63km in a route of 1440.61km.