After its brief foray into South America on the Rally Argentina last month, the FIA World Rally Championship moves back to Europe for its seventh round, the Acropolis Rally, which starts in earnest tomorrow morning. The Greek event boasts the ...
After its brief foray into South America on the Rally Argentina last month, the FIA World Rally Championship moves back to Europe for its seventh round, the Acropolis Rally, which starts in earnest tomorrow morning. The Greek event boasts the hottest conditions that the world's top rally stars will encounter all season, and with many of the stages being used twice in this year's schedule, the Acropolis's reputation as Europe's hardest rally on cars is likely to be reinforced.
The late exclusions of both Marcus Grönholm and Richard Burns in Argentina handed a surprised Carlos Sainz his 24th victory at world championship level, drawing the Spaniard alongside Tommi Mäkinen at the top of the all-time winners list. His Ford team and rivals Subaru will be hoping to take further points from Peugeot this time, but the French manufacturer is introducing a new homologation of its 206 WRC as it tries to stay in front.
PEUGEOT (1st - 68 points)
Technical: Peugeot introduces the third evolution of its 206 WRC in Greece, and all three of the team's nominated drivers - Marcus Grönholm, Richard Burns and Harri Rovanperä - have brand new cars accordingly. The French manufacturer has tried to increase durability and improve cooling. The most visible change on the new car is a different rear wing, which has been altered to improve downforce when the car is sliding sideways.
Sporting: Peugeot's hopes for the Acropolis will depend largely on the performance and reliability of the new evolution of the 206 WRC, which makes its debut here. The team has nominated three drivers - Marcus Grönholm, Richard Burns and Harri Rovanperä - for manufacturers' points, while regular asphalt driver Gilles Panizzi will use an older specification car run by Bozian Racing. Peugeot has tested extensively for this event, including five days in Spain and four days in Greece.
Quotes: Marcus Grönholm said: "The new car doesn't actually feel so different when you drive it - the engine's similar and the handling is basically the same. The difference is that it's stronger, so maybe we can be a bit more committed in the rougher sections - but that's not something I'm really thinking about. We had a good test for here and I certainly think it's possible to fight for the victory. After our problems in Argentina a win here would be a good return."
FORD (2nd - 41 points)
Technical: Ford has chosen the same 'conservative' route as Subaru in terms of car specification for the Acropolis - no major revisions have been introduced on the Focus RS WRC02 for this event, although the team has tried to make small gains in weight in a few areas. The three Focuses (all previously-used cars) will use a regular wishbone set-up, not the 'flatter' unit that allows a little more ground clearance.
Sporting: Ford sends its three regular drivers - Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and Markko Martin - to this event, and all are nominated for manufacturers' points. In an unusual switch, Martin's car will run in all-blue 'RS' livery. Like most teams, Ford has tested heavily for what is widely regarded as the roughest rally in Europe - its mileage included five days' hot-weather work in Spain, where it was able to work hard on tyre development. McRae received an official reprimand from the event stewards today, after he was adjudged to have driven along part of a stage in the wrong direction during the pre-event reconnaissance.
Quotes: Carlos Sainz said: "I enjoy this event because it's different in mechanical terms. If you look back at our speed in Cyprus then we should be competitive - we've made a few small improvements to the car since Argentina but I don't think they'll make such a big difference. This event and the next round [the Safari Rally in Kenya] are crucial to our hopes for the year."
Colin McRae said: "Luck was on our side a bit in Argentina with the top two Peugeots getting excluded, but we have to come away from this one and the Safari with at least one victory. Hopefully we can get that here but nothing's straightforward."
SUBARU (3rd - 33 points)
Technical: Subaru has elected to 'play safe' with the Impreza WRC2002's specification for this event. Although a number of technical developments were nearly ready in time, the Prodrive-run team decided to hold off introducing them until Rally Finland. The Imprezas will again be fitted with ducting near the headlamps - as seen in Cyprus - and this will be the main form of cooling for the crew inside the car, since the roof-mounted air scoop can be blocked off to prevent dust from entering the cabin. Subaru sends three Imprezas to the event - the first time this season that it has run more than two cars - and Petter Solberg's example is brand new.
Sporting: For the first time this season, Subaru has entered three Imprezas - regular drivers Tommi Mäkinen and Petter Solberg are joined by Japanese driver Toshihiro Arai in the line-up. All three drivers are nominated for manufacturers' points. Mäkinen will again be navigated by Kaj Lindstrom as Risto Mannisenmaki continues to wait on a definitive verdict from his medical advisors on his recovery after the pair's Corsica accident last year.
Quotes: Petter Solberg said: "I think if we get everything right here and don't have any big problems then I think we can fight for the win. I like all the rallies but on this one, I don't seem to have so many problems. Last year we lost a little time with the gearbox but still finished second, so we are quite optimistic that we can stop Peugeot. I think the stages on the rally are much smoother this year - I don't think it'll be as much of a car breaker as it has been before."
Tommi Mäkinen said: "My neck is still a little bit stiff after our accident in Argentina but it won't be a big problem for me. I'm just glad that we had three weeks between rallies, because that allowed me a bit more time to recover. I've got a good feeling with the car coming into this rally but I've never won here, so I just want to have a clear run without problems and see where I end up. We're quite confident."
MITSUBISHI (4th - 6 points)
Technical: Mitsubishi Ralliart has made small adjustments to the Lancer Evo WRC's rear suspension and ride height, since this event is the first one on which the car will have to run with two spare wheels. That aside, the car features only minor adjustments from the specification that ran in Argentina - Ralliart made changes to the differential mapping during its test for here. The car proved reliable during that pre-event run, though - almost 1000 kilometres were completed over four days.
Sporting: Mitsubishi enters its two regular drivers - François Delecour and Alister McRae - for this event. Behind the scenes, Ralliart is continuing to build up mileage on the development 'Step Two' Lancer World Rally Car - it recently completed an asphalt test in France and was scheduled to run in Finland this week.
Quotes: Alister McRae said: "The car feels very similar to Argentina and it certainly wasn't bad there, but all we need is a really clean run without any major problems. That would at least allow us to gauge where we are in relation to everyone else. You can never take reliability for granted, especially on the Acropolis, but the test went fine so we have to be optimistic."
SKODA (5th - 5 points)
Technical: Skoda has fitted some new-specification rear shock absorbers to the Octavia WRCs for this event but that aside, the cars are largely unchanged from their Argentina specification. The Czech team has made adjustments to the exhaust, however - more heat cladding has been fitted in an attempt to keep the temperature inside the cockpit as low as possible for the crews.
Sporting: Skoda enters three Octavia WRCs for this event - regulars Toni Gardemeister and Kenneth Eriksson are joined by 1984 world champion Stig Blomqvist. Argentine driver Gabriel Pozzo will use a fourth car, run by British privateer team David Sutton Cars.
Quotes: Toni Gardemeister said: "We did about a day and a half's testing for this event and I have to say that I think the car we've got here is the best Octavia I've seen yet on gravel. But of course, this is the Acropolis and it's so rough sometimes that anything can happen. The most you can hope for is reliability, because if you have that then you can get a good result. I'm quite optimistic because we had no real problems during the test."
HYUNDAI (6th - 2 points)
Technical: Hyundai's engineering team describes the Acropolis specification Accent WRC3 as a 'small step forward' from the car which ran in Argentina. The team has played with differential settings during testing, and the car will also use a different specification of damper on the Greek roads.
Sporting: Hyundai sends three Accent WRC3s to Greece, to be driven by Armin Schwarz, Freddy Loix and Juha Kankkunen. All three drivers are nominated for manufacturers' points.
Quotes: Freddy Loix said: "I already had a good feeling with the car from Argentina but in our testing, we've found a little more traction by changing some of the differential settings. There a bit more freedom in the set-up there now and that's a big help. The stages here this year are the smoothest that I've ever seen them in Greece."
Armin Schwarz said: "I think this will still be a hard event, even though a lot of people are saying the roads are smoother than before. On the second run through, we could have ruts, big rocks or the bedrock of the road itself and we'll have to take care with tyre choice to make sure we don't get punctures or lose too much grip."
CITROEN (not scoring for the championship)
Technical: Citroen brings the same Xsara WRCs that contested this event last year as it tackles its first gravel rally in 12 months. But the cars' specification has changed - they have both been uprated to 'second evolution' versions and both feature the semi-automatic gearbox. The team has also worked hard on differential settings, springs and dampers over a long test and development process.
Sporting: Citroen enters two Xsara WRCs for this event, its first gravel outing in 12 months and the first of three planned loose-surface entries this season. The cars will be driven by Swede Thomas Radstrom and young Frenchman Sebastien Loeb.
Quotes: Thomas Radstrom said: "We have to be hopeful of a good result here. The car had good performance in Greece last year and we've certainly moved it on since then. What we don't know, of course, is how much quicker everyone else is. But if we have a clean run - and that's the crucial thing - then I think we can be fighting for the podium positions."
The Acropolis is the third round of this year's FIA Junior World Rally Championship, and all of the leading protagonists in the 1600cc based series will be present. François Duval and Daniel Sola are likely to pick up their title battle where they left it in Catalunya, but Italians Nicola Caldani and Andrea Dallavilla are among a dozen rivals who will be aiming for their first victories of the season. There will be no action for Austrian driver David Doppelreiter, however - the young Austrian has had to withdraw his entry after he injured himself in a mountain biking accident.
Several private World Rally Car crews have entered, meanwhile, and they will be hoping to capitalise if any of the manufacturer entries hit trouble. Former Skoda and Subaru works driver Bruno Thiry will use a Peugeot 206 WRC, Pole Tomasz Kuchar has entered a Toyota Corolla WRC, and German Armin Kremer and local man Ioannis Papadimitriou will both drive Focus WRCs.