Acropolis Rally: Ford preview

BP-Ford duo goes for gold in marathon Greek rally Greece is the home of the Olympic movement and its majestic athletics stadium in Athens, built for the 2004 Games, is where the BP-Ford World Rally Team will begin its quest for gold medal...

BP-Ford duo goes for gold in marathon Greek rally

Greece is the home of the Olympic movement and its majestic athletics stadium in Athens, built for the 2004 Games, is where the BP-Ford World Rally Team will begin its quest for gold medal winning performances on the Acropolis Rally (23 - 26 June). The team will start round eight of the FIA World Rally Championship intent on extending its mastery of one of the series' classic events, which the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car has won four times in the past five seasons.

The hostile environment in the mountains of central Greece, where all the competition except the 2.40km super special stage in the Olympic Stadium will be located, makes the Acropolis one of the toughest events in the calendar. Success demands strength, reliability and speed and since the Focus made its debut in 1999, the car has claimed four of its 16 WRC wins there.

The Acropolis is the last of four consecutive rough road, hot weather events in the Mediterranean. The conditions to be faced cannot be underestimated. Late June is likely to bring air temperatures in excess of 30C, leading to baking hot conditions in the cars. And a combination of huge stones and unforgiving base rock jutting through the road surface will pose a harsh test for the cars and drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen and team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Možný.

Roads that are faster than the previous two rounds of the championship's mini-tour of the eastern Mediterranean in Cyprus and Turkey offer better airflow and cooling to the engine and transmission. But higher speeds mean rocks can inflict greater punishment and a stream of uphill hairpin bends on some speed tests, which climb to over 1600 metres, place a heavy strain on cars.

The Acropolis is also an arduous rally for BP-Ford's tyre partner Michelin. Although it has lost its reputation as the hardest-wearing rally of the season for tyres, the abrasive roads and high temperatures still require rubber that is durable enough to survive the long stages, but soft enough to offer maximum grip.

With the championship reaching the halfway point and Ford lying third in the manufacturers' standings, BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson has given both drivers the go-ahead to drive flat out. "Toni has the opportunity to drive at 100 percent from the very first kilometre and I expect him to show the pace that brought him podium finishes on the first two rounds. For the past few rallies Roman has been under orders to drive cautiously and ensure that he brought the car to the finish. He has done a great job by avoiding trouble and scoring points on the last three events. Now I've told him that he can drive at maximum from the start here and show me his pace," said Wilson.

This will be Gardemeister's fifth Acropolis start. "This rally is the best of the rough rallies we do," said the 30-year-old Finn. "It's normally the quickest and the roads are much better now than they were five years ago. They're wider and probably not as rough as they used to be, but still a tough challenge. I enjoy driving there and think it would be realistic to aim for a podium finish. I have a good strong car and I'd like to have a clean run and get a good position for the team."

"The Acropolis is usually dry but there's always the chance of thunderstorms in the mountains when it gets too hot. I'd obviously prefer it if conditions stay dry because consistent weather makes tyre selection easy and grip is dependable. It's a rally where start position is important because there is always plenty of loose, slippery gravel on the roads for the first few cars which is then swept away. I have quite a good start position in fifth but I remember last year the first 10 cars on the stage were finding it quite slippery, so I will have to wait and see," he added.

Twenty-nine-year-old Kresta has competed on the Acropolis three times. "I'm really looking forward to Greece because it's a nice rally in which to drive," said the Czech. "But it's also a difficult one. It's rough but can also be quite fast and that combination is hard for the cars. The roads are quite wide and for the second pass through the stages they will be quite clean. I would compare some sections to the roads we encountered in Sardinia.

"I had a look at the weather forecast which suggests it's going to be dry with lots of sun, which is good for me. I like those conditions but if it rains then that's not a big problem for me so long as the conditions are the same for everybody.

"I've never finished the rally so it would be good for me to get a good result there. Malcolm has told me I don't have to be as cautious as in the past few rallies and can drive fast from the start so that has given me more confidence. It's difficult to say where I can finish but I'd be really pleased with a top six position and I think Malcolm would be happy with that too," he added.

Team News

* Five privately-entered Focus RS cars will start. Henning Solberg, who won the Norwegian Championship KNA Rally Trondelag at the weekend, and Antony Warmbold will both drive M-Sport-built 2004 specification cars. Mark Higgins will drive a 2003 specification Focus RS for British-based team Eddie Stobart Motorsport. Finland's Mikko Hirvonen and Greece's Jon Papadimitriou will also drive 2003 Focus RS cars.

* BP-Ford has nominated Michelin's Z pattern tyres for the event, which are unbeaten since their launch in New Zealand in April. Designed for a clear and hard surface, the Z tyre has a relatively compact tread pattern to ensure the maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the road for the best possible grip and traction. In the unlikely situation of heavy rain, the team can cut the Z tyre to a ZA pattern. It is a more open tread, designed to penetrate the loose surface in search of firmer ground deeper down.

* Development work is continuing on the all-new Ford Focus WRC at the team's base in Cumbria, England. Malcolm Wilson will update media on how technical director Christian Loriaux and his team are progressing at the team's Happy Hour function on Wednesday at 18.30 in the BP-Ford service park in Lamia.

Rally Route

The rally is again based at Lamia in central Greece and the route is broadly similar to 2004 - with one exception. One of the longest traditions of the championship was dropped last year when the ceremonial start at the Parthenon in central Athens, from which the rally takes its name, was scrapped. This year's rally returns to the Greek capital when Athens' Olympic Stadium hosts a side-by-side super special stage on asphalt to open the action on Thursday evening. The remaining three days are based around Lamia, 200km north in the Mount Parnassos region. The opening leg, the longest of the event, is based south-west of the town on the flanks of Mount Kallidromo. The middle leg ventures along the slops of Mount Iti and Mount Giona, heading further south towards the former rally base of Itea. The final day tackles stages around the Timphristos mountains to the north-west, before returning to the Mount Iti area. Seven of the 19 stages, covering 349.57km are used twice, with five tests new to the rally. Drivers face 1065.57km in total.


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Series WRC
Drivers Mark Higgins , Mikko Hirvonen , Toni Gardemeister , Roman Kresta , Malcolm Wilson , Henning Solberg , Antony Warmbold , Christian Loriaux
Teams M-Sport