Argentina: Ford preview

Ford bids for Argentine rally treble with new Focus WRC. After a hugely encouraging debut for the dramatic new Ford Focus RS World Rally Car in New Zealand last month, Ford Rallye Sport heads to the Rally Argentina (8 - 11 May) bidding for a ...

Ford bids for Argentine rally treble with new Focus WRC.

After a hugely encouraging debut for the dramatic new Ford Focus RS World Rally Car in New Zealand last month, Ford Rallye Sport heads to the Rally Argentina (8 - 11 May) bidding for a hat-trick of wins on the classic South American event. The Focus RS has been victorious for the past two seasons there and a third triumph over the sandy gravel tracks close to Cordoba would further confirm the undoubted potential of Ford's radical new FIA World Rally Championship challenger.

Ford makes the long trip to Villa Carlos Paz for round five of 14 boosted by the pace displayed by team leaders Markko Märtin and Michael Park in New Zealand, when they held second for almost two days and were the only genuine challengers to world champion Marcus Grönholm. Now the target is to repeat the Argentine wins claimed by Colin McRae in 2001 and Carlos Sainz last season.

In contrast to the smooth, flowing roads of New Zealand, which were so hard that they resembled asphalt on the second pass, Rally Argentina is a more traditional gravel event. Softer roads that are likely to become rutted on repeated speed tests, and which are therefore tougher on the cars, are usual although the roughest special stages have been omitted from this year's route. Stunning scenery and a seemingly never-ending stream of river crossings provide superb viewing and the passionate Latins flock to the stages in their tens of thousands, providing a crackling atmosphere with impromptu roadside fiestas.

Ford Rallye Sport's young team is again short on experience. Only Märtin has competed in Argentina before, finishing fourth last year to claim what was then a career-best result. The 27-year-old Estonian was highly enthused by the performance of the new Focus in New Zealand but accepts that Rally Argentina is a very different type of event.

"I felt so comfortable in the car and it seemed so easy to drive at a competitive pace," he said. "But the roads in Argentina are not at all like those in New Zealand. They're much softer and we'll need to learn how our new car will work on that kind of surface. Our pre-event test was interrupted so badly by rain that I couldn't learn too much about that. I think we'll use the first day in Argentina to try to understand the car in those conditions and see what comes out. We're not sure what the car is capable of on those roads and we're not sure what its limits are. What we do know is that it's capable of going very fast.

"Last year we set good times on our second pass through the stages and if we can make one step more this year we should be able to do well. Due to the route changes, there are many new stages so maybe previous experience will not count for as much as it has in previous years," added Märtin.

Duval will start the event for the first time, although co-driver Stéphane Prévot has four years' previous experience to help guide the 22-year-old Belgian. "I made a recce of the rally last year but I have the same kind of problem as in New Zealand," said Duval. "The pace notes I made with Jean-Marc Fortin in 2002 are not perfect so Stéphane and I will make totally new notes. I like the stages. They're quite sandy and I like driving on that kind of surface. The roads are also quite rough which is good for Ford, given our performances on the other rough events in the championship. I tested the Focus last week and that went well. We had no problems with the car over the big rocks so that's encouraging.

"Although I have no experience of Argentina, it should be easier than driving New Zealand for the first time because the roads are more like a traditional gravel event and therefore less specialised. But it will still be difficult to set the same kind of times as drivers who have competed there before, so gaining experience is the crucial thing for me," he added.

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will also start Argentina for the first time, the Finns at the wheel of a 2002-specification Focus RS. "I've never been to the country before but I've spoken with Markko and other drivers who have competed there," said 22-year-old Hirvonen. "They tell me that the roads can be quite rough, with a mixture of fast and twistier sections and that I should also expect fog. I hope they're not as slippery as the roads in New Zealand.

"I hope I don't make as many mistakes in Argentina as I did in New Zealand. I was just happy to finish the rally and I think my final position was as much down to other people's retirements as my own pace. But the main thing was that now I have experience of the rally for next year and that's what I'm aiming for in Argentina, although another finish in the top 10 would be good," he added.

Team News

* Due to the ban on local testing before long-haul rallies, Ford Rallye Sport conducted its pre-event test in Portugal. Roads around Arganil and Ponte da Lima, traditional Rally of Portugal territory, were used during the five-day session at which Märtin, Duval and test driver Mark Higgins all took the wheel. Heavy rain fell virtually throughout, which was perfect for simulating Rally Argentina's many river crossings but hindered efforts to perfect a dry gravel set-up for the event. Almost 600km were completed by the three drivers.

* Modifications have been made to the Focus' hydraulic system following the problems encountered by Märtin and Duval in New Zealand. The improvements were tested in Portugal last week and technical director Christian Loriaux said he was pleased with the work which has increased the protection around the system.

* Märtin will drive a new Focus RS while Duval will be behind the wheel of the Estonian's Rally New Zealand car.

* Team technician Neil Buckley won the Group N production car category on the opening round of the British Rally Championship in the daunting Kielder Forest complex last weekend. The Scot, co-driven by Dougie Redpath, took victory by more than 2min 30sec and finished 14th overall.

Rally Route

Major changes to the route for a second year have produced the most compact Rally Argentina ever. After dropping the southern leg around Santa Rosa de Calamuchita in 2002, organisers have now scrapped the power-sapping tests amid the lunar-style landscape high in the Traslasierra mountains to comply with the preferred single service park format. As a result the tough El Condor and Giulio Cesare tests, two of the most famous in the sport, do not feature. Instead the rally is based around the service park at La Cumbre, 60km north of Villa Carlos Paz, and contains several new stages and some not used for many years. After two runs at the Pro-Racing super special stage on Thursday evening, the action is concentrated around the Punilla Valley and the Sierra Chicas and Sierra de Ischilin mountain ranges. The first two legs are a mixture of fast stages to the north and twistier roads to the south with the third leg, the shortest of the rally with less than 60km of competition, just to the east of La Cumbre. Drivers face 25 stages comprising 388.94km of competition in a total route of 1379.61km.


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Series WRC
Drivers Colin McRae , Carlos Sainz , Marcus Gronholm , Mikko Hirvonen , Stéphane Prévot , Jarmo Lehtinen , Jean-Marc Fortin , Markko Martin , Christian Loriaux