Catalunya: Ford Rallye Sport preview

Record breaker Sainz leads Ford into Spanish duel Ford Rallye Sport's Carlos Sainz will become the most experienced driver in world rally history when he guides the team into action on his home event, Spain's Catalunya Rally (21 - 24 March). ...

Record breaker Sainz leads Ford into Spanish duel

Ford Rallye Sport's Carlos Sainz will become the most experienced driver in world rally history when he guides the team into action on his home event, Spain's Catalunya Rally (21 - 24 March). The 39-year-old Madrid based pilot will start his 155th world event on this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship, surpassing great rival and four-time champion Juha Kankkunen.

Sainz and co-driver Luis Moya, world champions in 1990 and 1992, are assured of a tremendous reception from their home fans on the asphalt of the Costa Brava. They lie fourth in the world championship standings in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car and along with team-mates Colin McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist and Markko Märtin and Michael Park have guided Ford into second in the manufacturers' series.

The Spanish round of the 14-event series is the second consecutive all-asphalt rally, coming just two weeks after the demanding Tour de Corse. However, the surface is just about all the two rallies have in common. Whereas Corsica's asphalt was narrow and tortuously twisty, the roads in Spain are wider, faster and more flowing with drivers looking to save tenths of a second at every opportunity by cutting corners.

"Catalunya is always a big rally for me," said Sainz. "Competing in front of my home fans is special but even more so this year and it's ideal to make this record on this rally. It's a great honour for me although I guess this officially makes me the 'old man' of the sport now!" he joked.

"If I had to pick three special moments from my career they would all be from the early days. My debut world rally in Portugal in 1987 was very special, especially as I set fastest time in a Ford on the first stage. My first win on the 1990 Acropolis Rally meant I made my mark at the highest level and then the same year's Sanremo Rally clinched my first world title. I have many other memories from my career, some good and some not so good, but these three are the best," added Sainz.

McRae will return to action just 11 days after badly breaking the little finger on his left hand when his Focus RS slammed into a tree in Corsica. Although the 33-year-old Scot expects to have some pain from the injury, he does not feel it will hinder him

"My finger will be strapped up because the bones still need more time to set properly," he said. "If I drive without any strapping and hit the hand again then the bones will break again very easily. I'm going to see a specialist in Edinburgh on Saturday and he will give me advice on the best way to strap the finger to give maximum protection."

One way to ease the pain for McRae could be to switch the gear selector from the right hand side of the Focus' steering wheel to the left. "It wouldn't be a big problem to change gear with my left hand but to change with my right hand means I would have to grip the steering wheel with my left and that could be harder. I'll stay with the existing set-up for the shakedown test and see what happens before deciding whether to switch for the rally," he added.

Ford Rallye Sport driver Francois Duval tested a new construction Pirelli tyre in Spain on Tuesday and reported an improvement in durability over an extra-long 50km test stage. "That's good news because the asphalt in Tarragona on the first leg is abrasive and tough on tyres and durability is so important," said McRae. "Things are heading in the right direction on asphalt but we have to be patient. Corsica proved that in wet conditions our performance is as good as the best but in the dry we still have some catching up to do."

Märtin has spent much of the time since Corsica fighting the 'flu. He returned home and was confined to bed but hopes to have shaken off the illness before his favourite asphalt rally. "I like the faster asphalt events," said the 26-year-old Estonian. "I can see from the split times in Corsica that on the faster sections my speed was closer to those ahead of me than on the slower sections. But the roads in Catalunya can be quite dirty because there are many places where we cut corners and that drags dirt and gravel onto the asphalt.

"I learned a lot about the Focus RS in Corsica and I now understand more clearly how it behaves on asphalt. Personally I feel more competitive in dry conditions although I think the car and tyres probably work better in the wet," he added.

A fourth Focus RS will be driven by Germany's Armin Kremer and Dieter Schneppenheim. This will be Kremer's second world rally in 2002 but the first time he has shared a car with Schneppenheim, who has replaced Klaus Wicha. "I've known Dieter a long time and we've been rivals many times in Germany but this will be our first rally together," said Kremer.

"I've tested for two days since the Monte Carlo Rally and made a big step forward. I spent a day at Ford's handling test track at Lommel in Belgium which has similar characteristics to the roads in Spain. I made the car's set-up closer to my style of driving and then I spent a day in Austria which was the first time Dieter and I have worked together," he added.

In The Spotlight

Ford Rallye Sport's recent testing has concentrated on improving weight distribution on the Focus RS and new lightweight parts tested on Francois Duval's car on the Tour de Corse will be introduced to Sainz's and McRae's cars in Spain. One intriguing development is the decision to lower the co-driver's seat in both cars which not only improves the balance but means Grist, the shortest of the co-drivers cannot see properly out of the front windscreen!

The 1m 70cm Welshman said: "When I look up I can see no more than 100m ahead. I can only judge where we are on the stage by the feeling through my seat and the movement of the car. It requires greater concentration in reading pace notes and gauging exactly where we are so Colin has the information when he needs it but if it helps then I'm happy to try it."

Rally Route

The 38th running of this rally covers familiar territory, with the competition split between special stages north of Lloret de Mar around the small town of Vic and those to the south in the Tarragona region. In a change to tradition, the rally heads south on the opening day and that leg remains the toughest of the rally, covering 176.72km of the 394.98km of competition and more than 936km in total. It also features a double run at the 48.05km Escaladei stage, the longest of the rally and a true test of tyre durability. After a ceremonial start in Lloret de Mar on Thursday evening, each leg comprises two loops of three stages and drivers cover more 1948.95km in total before Sunday afternoon's finish.


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Series WRC