Cyprus: Ford Rallye Sport preview

Ford fit to win as the going gets tough in Cyprus. The twisty and rocky tracks high in the mountains of Cyprus will be a welcome sight for Ford Rallye Sport as the FIA World Rally Championship switches to gravel roads for the first time this ...

Ford fit to win as the going gets tough in Cyprus.

The twisty and rocky tracks high in the mountains of Cyprus will be a welcome sight for Ford Rallye Sport as the FIA World Rally Championship switches to gravel roads for the first time this season. Not only is the Focus RS World Rally Car more at home on gravel than the asphalt that characterised the opening quarter of the championship, but Ford has won the Cyprus Rally (18 - 21 April) for the past two seasons.

There's welcome news also regarding the team's injury problems. Co-driver Luis Moya, who missed the previous round in Spain with two broken ribs following a testing accident, is fit to start in Cyprus. His driver, Carlos Sainz, has fully recovered from the effects of two high-speed accidents in less than a week while team-mate Colin McRae's broken finger is healing well and he will discard the heavy strapping used during his brave drive to sixth in Spain.

This year's rally has been brought forward from June, ensuring the searing temperatures which helped make the event a true test of endurance for both drivers and cars should be less of a problem. However, the taxing roads high in the Troodos Mountains are so twisty that drivers rarely reach fourth gear and the rally is the slowest in the 14-round championship, average speeds last year reaching just 66kph.

Sainz and Moya crushed the opposition to win in Cyprus in 2000, the first occasion on which the rally featured in the championship. The Spanish pair were third last year and are keen to emphasise the prowess of the Focus RS on gravel to strengthen Ford Rallye Sport's hold on second place in the 2002 championship.

"It will be a very interesting event," said 40-year-old Sainz. "The whole team is looking forward to this rally and as it's the first of five consecutive gravel events it's important for everyone. It's a slow rally, although some of the newer stages are a little faster, more like those used on the Acropolis Rally. Temperatures should be cooler but 25*C is still hot enough and with so many twists and turns it will still be hard work."

Moya will brave the pain from his injuries to return alongside Sainz, although the 41-year-old from Barcelona will sit out the team's pre-rally test this weekend. "The doctor told me I would not be 100 percent fit for the rally and he's right," said Moya. "I feel about 80 percent but that is enough for me. I still have some pain but I expected that. I don't want to take painkillers but they will be available if the pain becomes too bad and I have strapping to put around my ribs under my racing overalls which I may use."

Team-mates Colin McRae and Nicky Grist aim to continue their good form on the Mediterranean holiday island which brought second place in 2000 and victory last year.

"It will be great to be back on gravel again," said McRae. "Cyprus isn't my favourite loose surface rally but we should be able to fight for victory again which we haven't been able to on the asphalt events. It's quite a frustrating rally because if you push too hard you risk sliding wide off the ideal line and losing traction but because speeds are slow there's always the feeling that you must drive harder."

The 33-year-old Scot is happy with the way his injured finger is recovering. "The bones have started to knit together and the doctors are pleased so my fingers are no longer strapped. I'm starting to get movement back and when I put pressure around the knuckle then it hurts. I'll just use light tape to hold the two fingers together and I'll use the normal gear change on the right of the steering wheel. Cyprus isn't the best event now because it's twisty with a lot of steering wheel movement but we'll see how it goes," added McRae.

Markko Märtin and Michael Park are looking forward to the gravel roads more than anyone. Apart from three special stages on November's Rally of Great Britain, their last loose surface outing was back in August in Finland and Cyprus marks their Ford debut on gravel.

"The Focus RS felt really good in testing on gravel. I finished sixth in Cyprus in a privately-entered car in 2000 so I see no reason why we can't do a good job here," said 26-year-old Märtin. "It's not my favourite gravel event because the roads are twisty and slow. If you drive too aggressively and force the pace too much then it's easy to lose your rhythm. You must find a good speed and concentrate on keeping neat lines through the bends."

Francois Duval and Jean-Marc Fortin will drive a fourth Focus RS, the Belgian pair behind the wheel of a 2002-specification car for the first time after excellent performances in an older car in Sweden and Corsica. "I was happy with our speed on both rallies in a 2001 car," said the 21-year-old Belgian driver who posted top six stage times on both rallies. "The 2002 car is obviously more advanced and I hope we can be even more competitive."

Finns Janne Tuohino and Petri Vihavainen and Austrian duo Manfred Stöhl and Ilka Petrasko will drive privately-entered Focus RS cars. Tuohino surprised many by holding a top six position in Sweden for much of the event while Cyprus marks a Focus world championship debut for Stöhl, Group N production car world champion in 2000.

In The Spotlight

Many experts would argue that the Cyprus Rally will give the first true indication of a form-guide to this year's world championship. Although the series is fought out on asphalt, snow and ice as well as gravel, it is the latter surface which provides the bulk of the competition. Despite the loose surfaces remaining out of sight until this fifth round, eight of the last 10 rounds will be on gravel, emphasising its importance to championship success.

"Although the balance of the season has shifted slightly with the introduction of the asphalt Deutschland Rally in place of the gravel Rally of Portugal, there are still more loose surface rallies in the championship than all the others added together," said Sainz. "It's the major surface and any team hoping to win a title knows a good performance on gravel is crucial."

Rally Route

The rally uses similar territory to last year, the major change being a switch to one single service park on the seafront in Limassol for the entire rally. After a ceremonial start in the town on Thursday evening, the opening leg continues the next day with two loops of three stages in the Troodos Mountains, two of which are new. The second leg is the toughest and most demanding, comprising more than 145km of competition in the same area. The final leg moves east to the hilly forested Machairas area for two loops of three tests. It will be the shortest world rally ever with just 324.17km of competition in a route of 1306.21km


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