Monte Carlo, Sweden, Norway, Mexico, Portugal, Argentina, Italy, Greece FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP MID-SEASON REVIEW Following the withdrawal of its main competitor before the start of the 2007 World Rally Championship, BFGoodrich is this...
Monte Carlo, Sweden, Norway, Mexico, Portugal, Argentina, Italy, Greece
FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP MID-SEASON REVIEW
Following the withdrawal of its main competitor before the start of the 2007 World Rally Championship, BFGoodrich is this year the sole tyre supplier to the factory teams, as well as to the vast majority of WRC privateers. Despite its enforced monopoly situation, however, BFGoodrich has no intention of resting on its laurels and has continued with its development programme in order to continue improving its range and also in response to the demand of its partners who are locked in a particularly fierce fight in both the Drivers' and Manufacturers' championships. The outcome of at least four of the eight rallies that have taken place to date in 2007 has been decided to some extent by differing tyre choices between Marcus Gronholm (Ford) and Sebastien Loeb (Citroen).
This time last year, i.e. halfway into the 2006 World Championship, BFGoodrich was pleased with the way its presence in the WRC arena against Pirelli (a brand with 100 years of motor sport experience behind it) had begun, with an undefeated run of wins on all the different types of surface visited by the series. So far this year, the Italian firm has only been represented amongst world class rallying's elite by Gigi Galli (Citroen Xsara WRC) in Sweden, Norway and Portugal, three events won by BFGoodrich's partner teams.
In 2007, outgoing Drivers' and Manufacturers' Champions BFGoodrich are working with all three factory teams (Citroen, Ford and Subaru), as well as with the three M2-registered operations (OMV-Kronos, VK-Stobart and Munchi's), plus the majority of the most regularly present privateers like Jan Kopecky, Toni Gardemeister and Gareth MacHale. As a consequence, the objective has changed: instead of competing directly with a rival tyre manufacturer, BFGoodrich's aim is to produce a range of competitive, durable products for at least seven different types of car (C4, Focus06, Impreza 2007, Xsara, Fabia, Focus04 and Lancer). Supplying and working alongside all these partners, not to mention entrants in the Junior Championship and certain Production Championship runners, calls for rigorous logistics and carefully planned, large production runs. In total, 16,359 tyres were available for the first eight events of the season.
The first half of 2007 saw BFGoodrich face several technical challenges, from the need to adapt its products to the specific demands of the latest WRC cars (Citroen C4 and Subaru Impreza) to the arrival in the calendar of new or extensively modified events (Monte Carlo, Norway, Portugal). And although Citroen Sport and BFGoodrich were able to run a comprehensive test programme prior to the start of the January's Monte Carlo Rally, Subaru's first experience of BFGoodrich tyres only dated back to the previous month. As a result, it was only on the season's curtain-raiser that the latter's drivers and engineers and their delegated tyre technicians were really able to start fine-tuning the team's tyres/suspension/driver package.
Subaru back in the limelight
The route of the 2007 Monte Carlo Rally took the winter classic back the Vercors and Ardeche regions of France. Snow was despairingly absent, however, and the BFGoodrich g-Force Profiler tyres were forced to run in a mix of dry and damp conditions that saw Sebastien Loeb and Dani Sordo dominate. Citroen collected one-two finishes on all six stages of Leg 2, with Dani Sordo running on medium compound rubber claiming the first attempt at the long Antraigues stage (46km) before Sebastien Loeb responded with the best time second time through to put the seal on his fourth Monte win. The Subaru drivers were delighted with the grip provided by the g-Force Profiler which took Chris Atkinson to two fastest times the first for this version of the Subaru Impreza which was th introduced in January 2006 and the Australian ultimately pipped Ford's Mikko Hirvonen to 4 place at the finish. But despite Atkinson's encouraging result in Monte Carlo and also Solberg's podium in Greece, much work is still needed to adapt the Impreza's chassis and settings to its BFGoodrich tyres. This work will be tackled during the summer test programme in readiness for the fast gravel rounds featured during the second half of the year and, more especially, for the four asphalt fixtures yet to come.
Subaru's results have been more consistent on the loose. The new Impreza WRC2007 was in sensational form over the fast stages of Mexico but was less at home over the narrower, rougher tests encountered in Portugal and Sardinia. To compensate for the high wear rates seen on the twistier stages, BFGoodrich's development team brought out a new product, the extra-hard g-Force Gravel 10. Solberg's brake problems in Italy meant no firm conclusions concerning this tyre could be drawn but the Norwegian did go on to post the second quickest time over the Acropolis Rally's awesome 48km stage with it. "If the g-Force Gravel 10 and the extra 20% durability it gives hadn't existed, it is possible the Subaru wouldn't have been able to complete stage," observes BFGoodrich's Rallies Programme Manager Matthieu Bonardel. "The same product was also available to our other th partner teams but only Henning Solberg (4 best time) and Manfred Stohl used it in Greece. The Austrian complained of a lack of grip with it, which just goes to show that tuning a new tyre to the different types of car is a long term job..."
Decisive tyre choices
Citroen and Ford have been more conservative in terms of their tyre packages and have essentially kept with proven, validated products. Even so, differing tyre choices between Sebastien Loeb and Marcus Gronholm had a real influence on the result of several events, including Sweden, Portugal and, more recently, Greece.
In Sweden, the duel between Loeb and Gronholm was decided by a matter of millimetres on Saturday afternoon when Loeb chose the 'long stud' option g-Force Ice, while Gronholm went for 'normal' studs. On the icy stages swept almost perfectly clean of snow by the morning's visit, the Citroen C4 proved less incisive on its longer tungsten tips. Gronholm succeeded in pulling out a cushion of around 30 seconds in the course of just two stages to put the seal on his fifth Swedish Rally win. The Finn was consequently the favourite for the following round which took competitors to the following weekend's Rally Norway. Although based barely 150km from the Swedish stages, the lie of the land on the other side of the border was far hillier and twistier, and that demanded even more of the studs.
For the two fixtures events of the 2007 championship, BFGoodrich focused its efforts on the durability of its studs and a new studding technique was introduced to guarantee an even better bond between the metallic tips and the tread blocks of the tyres. The result was globally positive, except on those stages that featured exposed gravel and stones towards the end of the Swedish Rally. The snow was much deeper in Norway where even the availability of three different stud lengths failed to bring out the very best in the g-Force Ice tyres. Indeed, the conditions called for products that were more geared to fresh snow but the FIA now only authorises a single tread pattern for the winter fixtures. On top of that, 21 unused tyres from the drivers' quota for Sweden had to be 'nominated' for Norway, which meant the same tyres had to cover both events. With grip at a premium, Mikko Hirvonen (Ford/BFGoodrich) produced a stunning run to dominate Rally Norway from flag to flag and there was nd th little his team-mate Marcus Gronholm (2 ) and even less that Sebastien Loeb (14 , Citroen/BFGoodrich) could do to stop him. Ford/BFGoodrich left Scandinavia with a harvest of 34 points from a possible 36 to pull out a big gap in the provisional Manufacturers' standings.
From Portugal to Argentina Victory for Sebastien Loeb in Mexico gave the new C4 WRC/BFGoodrich its first success on gravel before the World Rally Championship returned to Europe for the new-look Rally de Portugal which has switched to the Algarve region in the south of the country. With on-site testing prohibited, BFGoodrich had little information about the terrain and the conditions encountered during the first loop of stages came as a big surprise! The tracks were carpeted with a top-coating of dirt on top of a hard-packed base which proved extremely hard-wearing on the tyres. It was consequently necessary to 're-cut' the tread patterns in a bid to clear the layer of loose gravel without removing too much rubber and running the risk of the compromising the tyres' durability.
The following day's challenge was mud after overnight rain left the morning's three stages treacherously slippery. Loeb opted for soft compound g-Force Gravels, while Gronholm put his faith in the same tyres but with a medium compound. Over the 30km of the day's first stage, it was practically level-pegging between the two drivers but Loeb was then fastest over the next two tests. By the end of the opening loop, the Frenchman had pulled out a lead of 15 seconds over the Finn. The stages of the second pass had had time to dry and, quite logically, Loeb switched to the hard compound option but Gronholm st preferred to stay with the medium compound. The afternoon allowed Sebastien Loeb to all but secure the 31 world class win of his career, while the Ford Focus WRC06 drivers were given a five-minute time penalty for a technical infringement.
As the calendar moved on to Argentina, the scrap between Loeb and Gronholm was a thrilling affair from start to finish despite, or possibly because of the cancellation of Leg 1 following delays incurred during the long return trip back to Villa Carlos Paz after the ceremonial start and first super-special in Buenos Aires. A mere 20 or so seconds split the two champions after the long second leg, so Sunday's two attempts at the classic Mina Clavero and El Condor tests were potentially a chance for the Ford star to reverse the trend. As the temperature dipped to little more than 10C at altitude, the Citroen drivers chose extra-soft g-Force Gravels for the damp conditions, but Gronholm and Hirvonen had already used their quota of extra-soft tyres for the super-specials and the Ford Focus drivers were forced to set out for the final leg on soft rubber. For sure, the French team's judicious choice alone does not explain Loeb's win, but it is interesting to note that Chris Atkinson (Subaru) put in some stunning times and Dani Sordo succeeded in posting two fastest times on the Sunday, a performance that illustrated the potential of the '8-' extra-soft g-Force Gravel in the poor conditions of the 80km final leg.
The new g-Force Gravel 10
In contrast to Rally Argentina, which isn't too hard on tyres, the next two events on the calendar were the hardest- wearing of the season. In Sardinia, and above all Greece, the second passes were particularly punishing for the tyres (hotter temperatures, cut-up roads, buried rocks, higher speeds, etc.). To avoid the sight of cars returning to the service park on bald tyres and rates of wear in excess of 100%, BFGoodrich's development team introduced the new g-Force Gravel 10 which, thanks to its extra-hard compound, is 20% more resilient than the 'conventional' g-Force Gravel '9+' without that having any adverse effect on performance.
All three of BFGoodrich's factory partner teams nominated the new tyre for Sardinia, although only the Subaru drivers ran it on the Friday afternoon. Alas, neither of them was able to pass on eagerly awaited feedback to BFGoodrich's staff since Petter Solberg began to suffer brake trouble while rd lying 3 , and Chris Atkinson clouted a big rock. After choosing medium compound g-Force Gravels for the opening loop, the BFGoodrich-shod front-runners preferred to stay with the more familiar '9+' hard compound for the afternoon. Only Ford's Mikko Hirvonen chose to sample the new g-Force Gravel 10 on Saturday afternoon. With a podium finish apparently in his pocket, he saw it as an opportunity to prepare for the forthcoming Acropolis Rally. Loeb's mishap on the Sunday morning (an off while leading) threw the Drivers' championship wide open prior to what tyre manufacturers see as the most feared encounter of the season: the Acropolis Rally.
In the absence of Cyprus and Turkey from this year's calendar, the Acropolis stands out as the roughest fixture of the season and the daunting 48.88km stage is sure to hold a special place in the memories of BFGoodrich's technicians as one of the toughest tests of tyres ever seen in the WRC. To help overcome the 48.88km ribbon of rocks, stones and gravel, BFGoodrich gave its partners a broad choice of enduring tyres, from the new extra-hard compound g-Force Gravel 10 (215/65/15), to the wider g-Force Gravel H1 (1cm wider: 225/60/15) in a choice of '9+' hard and '10' extra-hard compounds and the g-Force Gravel H2 (225/60/15) which won the Greek round in the hands of Marcus Gronholm (Ford) in 2006. The latter, however, was not used at all this year.
The outcome in Greece was essentially decided by the second visit to the infamous 48.88km Aghii Theodhori stage for which Marcus Gronholm took a bold gamble by going back out on the hard compound '9+' option he had chosen for the morning's run. "We didn't have any g-Force Gravel 10s in our quota and we believed that there was still too much surface gravel around to warrant switching to the H1," says Christian Loriaux, Ford M-Sport Technical Director. "We agreed on the '9+' and defended our choice with Malcolm Wilson and, above all, Marcus. Marcus was immediately on our side and knew exactly where he would need to look after his tyres and where he would be able to push. We put two spares in the car just in case and crossed our fingers. I was confident, but when Hirvonen punctured 10km from the finish on the same tyres, I began to fear the worst! But then the news came through that Sebastien was in trouble so we asked Marcus to ease off over the final kilometres."
BFGoodrich's development specialists, who were waiting at the Stop Control, also had cause to fear for Gronholm's chances when they saw the state of the tyres of Aris Vovos, Matthew Wilson and Mikko Hirvonen who were all on the '9+' compound at the finish. In all logic, Marcus seemed destined to suffer the same fate, but the Finn managed his tyres to perfection over the stage's 48km, unlike Sebastien Loeb. The Citroen camp had gone for the wide H1, a more enduring product and also stronger than the 'conventional' tyre. However, the Frenchman asked too much of his tyres and ended up collecting a puncture 6km from the finish. Subaru's preference, meanwhile, went to the extra hard g-Force Gravel 10, which was practically the only reasonable choice inasmuch as the Impreza was harder on its tyres than its rivals. In the end, despite breaking a damper on the stage, Petter Solberg posted the second quickest time...
At the season's midpoint, Marcus Gronholm tops the Drivers' championship with a cushion of nine points over Sebastien Loeb. The action is scheduled to resume on the Ford driver's home ground, in Finland, although the four asphalt rallies that feature in the latter part of the calendar could well play more into the hands of the Frenchman who is unbeaten on sealed surfaces since January 2006. In the Manufacturers' standings, with Gronholm and Hirvonen finishing regularly on the podium, Ford has a solid 28-point advantage in the provisional standings and its new Focus WRC07 is due to make its debut in Finland. However, the speed of the Citroen C4 and its drivers on asphalt and their record of making well-advised tyre choices in changeable weather conditions could easily put them back in the chase. At the same time, it could well be Ford's satellite outfit Stobart VK/BFGoodrich, which boasts Henning Solberg and Jari-Matti Latvala in its ranks, both of whom are capable of splitting works the Fords and Citroen C4s on the loose that decides the outcome of the 2007 Manufacturers' championship.
THE SEASON'S HIGHLIGHTS SO FAR:
1. Dani Sordo causes a sensation on the Monte Carlo Rally, but the event is finally won by Sebastien Loeb (Citroen/BFGoodrich).
2. BFGoodrich inaugurates a new studding process. Loeb makes a poor tyre choice on Saturday in Sweden and Marcus Gronholm (Ford/BFGoodrich) goes on to collect the fifth win of his career in Karlstad.
3. A surprising but emphatic win for Mikko Hirvonen (Ford/BFGoodrich) on Rally Norway which featured on the WRC calendar for the first time. Deep snow and little grip.
4. Loeb, Citroen and BFGoodrich claim successive wins on gravel in Mexico, Portugal and Argentina. The Rally de Portugal proved particularly hard- wearing for the tyres.
5. BFGoodrich launches the new g-Force Gravel 10. Loeb crashes out in Sardinia to hand victory and also first place in the Drivers' standings to Gronholm.
6. The BFGoodrich-shod Subarus figure momentarily on top on the Acropolis Rally but Gronholm triumphs thanks to a bold tyre choice, while Solberg finishes on the podium.
7. Twentieth anniversary celebrations for run-flat mousse in Greece. This revolutionary system was first seen on the 1987 Acropolis Rally. This year it ensured that no BFGoodrich drivers were halted in their tracks by any of the 65 punctures recorded by BFGoodrich !
THE PRODUCTION WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP
With three brands (BFGoodrich, Pirelli and Yokohama) going head to head on a regular basis, this is a highly competitive championship for tyre manufacturers. BFGoodrich currently tops the points table with Japan's Toshihiro Arai (Subaru) after scoring a one-two finish on the most punishing round of the year, the Acropolis Rally. Note that run-flat mousse is not permitted in this championship.
Given the high number of runners and partners it has in the WRC, BFGoodrich was unable to meet all the requests it received from P-WRC competitors. As a consequence, the American brand works with just a few partners, although the latter are supplied with 'evolution' tyres for what is a highly competitive arena. The products in question are in fact the same as those used two years ago by the WRC cars. For the second half of the season, BFGoodrich's P-WRC partners should have a new-generation tyres for the championship's gravel rounds. At the season's mid-point, BFGoodrich dominates the standings in association with Toshi Arai. After collecting second places in Portugal and Argentina, the Japanese driver won the recent Acropolis Rally to pull out a cushion of 14 points. Greece was a particularly challenging event for the P-WRC tyres which are not allowed to run with mousse inserts. Even so, BFGoodrich runners succeeded in monopolising the top four places at one point with Arai, Andreas Aigner (Mitsubishi), Juho Hanninen (Subaru) and Armindo Araujo (Mitsubishi). However, Hanninen (steering, then brakes) and Araujo (engine) were both later eliminated, but with a score of 13 fastest times from 21 stages BFGoodrich came through the weekend with flying colours, including victory and a one-two finish (Arai + Aigner). The next round is the Rally New Zealand at the end of August.
FIA JUNIOR CHAMPIONSHIP
For the second year in a row, BFGoodrich is an official partner of the Junior Championship which is aimed at talented up-and-coming youngsters. BFGoodrich has put up a prize-fund of 50,000 for the most successful competitors to share at the end of the year. Drivers can enter with one of three categories of car (S1600, R3 and R2), while the tyres they use come from BFGoodrich's competition catalogue and are freely available on the market.
With a score of two wins and one second place to his name, Sweden's PG Andersson (Suzuki Swift) currently leads the series, although the equally consistent Estonian Urmo Aava (Suzuki Swift) is only four points behind. As is the case in the WRC, the FIA Junior Championship takes in three different types of terrain, namely snow (Norway), gravel (Portugal and Sardinia) and asphalt, which is the type of surface competitors will face on the last three rounds of the year (Germany, Corsica and Spain). With the exception of a stud problem on the tyres of Shaun Gallagher (Citroen C2) in Norway, which was solved after the opening leg, and a number of punctures on the gravel rounds (inevitable because these small cars follow the four-wheel drive machines which tend to drag rocks and stones onto the stages), the field has found BFGoodrich's products to be perfectly satisfactory. The next round is the Rally Finland at the beginning of August.