Winning Focus ready for more of the rough stuff in Cyprus Ford delivered the crucial blend of strength, reliability and speed to celebrate its new partnership with BP by winning the gruelling Acropolis Rally in Greece earlier this month for the...
Winning Focus ready for more of the rough stuff in Cyprus
Ford delivered the crucial blend of strength, reliability and speed to celebrate its new partnership with BP by winning the gruelling Acropolis Rally in Greece earlier this month for the fourth consecutive season with its Focus RS World Rally Car. Now the Ford BP Rallye Sport team is looking to reproduce those qualities and claim its third victory in four years on the Cyprus Rally (19 - 22 June).
In Greece the team led the roughest and toughest round of the FIA World Rally Championship from start to finish. It was the first success for the radical new 2003 Focus RS on only its third event and a maiden world rally triumph for Markko Martin and Michael Park on their first event in Castrol colours. The 27-year-old Estonian now lies fourth in the drivers' championship.
The sun-kissed Mediterranean island of Cyprus will offer virtually identical conditions as the 14-round championship reaches its midpoint at round seven. Rocky tracks high in the Troodos Mountains can reduce weaker cars to a standstill. Air temperatures in June are often well in excess of 30C, offering some of the toughest driving conditions of the season where endurance of both man and machine are just as important as outright speed.
The taxing roads feature long, uphill climbs which hug the contours of the mountains and contain so many twists and turns that drivers rarely reach fourth gear. Speeds are low (the average of last year's winner was less than 68kph) and with little airflow, engine and transmission temperatures are high. However, the slow speeds mean cars are not exposed to the same degree of punishment as on the faster, but equally rough, Acropolis Rally.
But the Ford BP team has little to fear from such extreme conditions. The Focus has built its reputation with a string of victories on the toughest rallies since its debut in 1999 and Martin's success in Greece confirmed that the 2003 car is just as strong as its predecessors. "People say that the rough gravel rallies like Cyprus and Greece suit the Focus RS," said Martin. "That's true, but I think every rally suits our car now. In the past we've not been as competitive on asphalt and on the faster gravel rallies but our testing has given me plenty of confidence for those types of events also.
"The Acropolis win was the reward of many years of hard work. But that's in the past and now we must look ahead to Cyprus. It's not my favourite gravel event because the roads are slow and twisty. But I led there briefly last year and that was significant as it was the first time I had led a world rally. It's quite a frustrating event. It's hard to find a rhythm because of all the twists and turns. Because it's slow, there's always a feeling of not attacking hard enough. But if you push too hard, you risk sliding wide, off the line and losing time. Patience brings the best results there," added Martin, whose best finish in his two Cyprus starts was sixth in 2000.
Ford BP team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot are also experienced in Cyprus. Duval has competed here twice and, like Martin, he briefly led in a Focus last season, but has yet to reach the final day. Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson will again give the 22-year-old Belgian driver the opportunity to attack from the start, having imposed orders on many previous rallies to reduce his pace to ensure he finishes and furthers his level of experience.
Duval hurt his neck during the accident which ended his Acropolis Rally while lying just behind Martin in second. "It was quite painful. The team decided that I shouldn't do the test immediately after the rally and I returned home for treatment. I've seen my physiotherapist three times since returning and it now feels much better so I think all will be OK," he said.
"Although I've started twice, I've retired quite early on both occasions so my knowledge of the roads isn't that good," said Duval. "It's a difficult rally because the stages are slow. More important than speed is good throttle response and traction. It's crucial to get the power on quickly and we know we can count on Michelin's rubber to provide the grip out of corners and ensure wheelspin is kept to a minimum on the hard surface. Road position plays a vital part on the first day because the early starters often have to put up with a lot of loose gravel on the surface. We'll start ninth and that should be a good place because most of the gravel should have been swept away by then," he added.
A third Focus RS will be driven by Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, although their M-Sport run car will be a 2002 specification vehicle. It will be Hirvonen's first start in Cyprus. "Although I've not competed here, I co-drove for Tommi Makinen in 2002 during testing so I know a little about the roads," said the 22-year-old. "They're slow but that's fine because a world championship should contain all kinds of roads and conditions.
"It's also going to be hot but I'm prepared for that. In testing after the Acropolis I drove 53km in 51 minutes without a break so that was good stamina training. The 2002 Focus RS has a great reputation for strength on the rough rallies and we were doing well in Greece before we retired so I think we could gain a good result in Cyprus with luck on our side," he added.
* The impact of Martin's Acropolis Rally victory in Estonia was huge. He received a congratulatory telephone call from the Prime Minister shortly after the finish. A media passenger ride on the Monday morning was interrupted by a telephone call from the President of Estonia who called Martin to offer his congratulations on behalf of the nation.
* Hirvonen completed a successful two-day test in Greece immediately after the Acropolis Rally in preparation for Cyprus. He covered about 300km in a 2003 Focus RS, with the aim of further improving the car's cooling systems and completing more endurance work in hot conditions. Technical director Christian Loriaux said several areas for improvement had been highlighted for Cyprus.
* Martin will have a new gravel crew driver for the event. Warren Hunt, a British Championship driver more than a decade ago, will replace former Teams Cup rally champion Henrik Lundgaard who is competing in the fourth round of the Danish Touring Car Championship. He drives in a two car team supported by Castrol, the new backer of Martin's Focus RS. Lundgaard will also miss the Rally Finland for similar reasons.
* Martin and Park will tackle the EOS Rally in Estonia at the wheel of a 2003 Focus RS World Rally Car on July 4 - 5. The event is backed by Martin's personal sponsor and he won the rally in 2002 in a Focus RS.
The event uses similar territory to last year with the Troodos Mountains hosting the bulk of the opening two days before the action switches east to the hilly and forested Machairas area. The major change is a new central service park, based on the seafront in the port area of Limassol. After a ceremonial start in the town on Thursday evening, the opening day comprises two loops of two stages in the mountains. The second leg is the toughest, covering more than 158km in the same area with the third day the shortest at just 82.86km. Drivers face 341.05km of competition in a compact route of just 1184.53km.