Strength and reliability the watchwords for Ford in Cyprus Endurance and reliability in both man and machine will come to the fore when the BP-Ford World Rally Team heads to the holiday island of Cyprus for what many regard as the toughest round...
Strength and reliability the watchwords for Ford in Cyprus
Endurance and reliability in both man and machine will come to the fore when the BP-Ford World Rally Team heads to the holiday island of Cyprus for what many regard as the toughest round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Far from enjoying the beaches and sunshine of the eastern Mediterranean, Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will fight scorching heat and boulder-strewn tracks on the Cyprus Rally (21 - 24 September) as they try to secure the squad's fifth win of this year's campaign.
Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car has earned an awesome reputation in arduous conditions, including two victories in Cyprus in six years. The new-generation Focus RS earned its credentials in gruelling conditions when Gronholm won June's Acropolis Rally of Greece. BP-Ford rated that event as the toughest for several years but there is every reason to believe that the Cypriot mountain roads, parched and baked after a long, hot summer with no rain, could be every bit as demanding.
The gravel roads high in the Troodos Mountains above the resort of Lemesos demand strength and reliability from the cars, which must withstand a heavy battering from rocks. The tracks are also incredibly twisty and speeds are lower than anywhere else in the 16-round championship. Last year's rally was won at an average of only 64.80kph, and at such speeds there is little airflow to cool hard-working engines and transmission.
With temperatures forecast to hover around the 30C mark during the rally, it is also a tough event for drivers and co-drivers. Temperatures are much higher inside the cars so stamina and fitness levels are important, as is a regular intake of fluids to combat dehydration.
Gronholm won in Cyprus in 2002 while Hirvonen finished fifth and sixth on his previous two appearances there. While continued development of the new Focus RS remains the primary aim for the rest of the season, BP-Ford has reduced the gap to the leaders in the manufacturers' standings to only 11 points and is keen to narrow that even further.
"It's a hard rally physically because of the heat," said 38-year-old Gronholm. "There's not a lot of air coming into the car because the speeds are slow and by the end of a stage it's hard to breathe. Then you have to be out of the car quickly to change the tyres around for the next stage so there's no opportunity to catch your breath. And then it's straight into the next stage. So fitness is important."
"The stages are OK but there is always the feeling that you need to drive faster. But if you start to attack there are so few straight sections that it's easy to go off the road. If the speed gets too high, then you can brake late and slide off or end up smashing a wheel on the stones. Patience is crucial and developing a good rhythm so that you flow through the endless corners is the key," he added.
Twenty-six-year-old Hirvonen will fly to Cyprus from the team's Spanish test today to allow himself several days to acclimatise and train in the heat.
"Cyprus is slower than other rallies and the roads are incredibly rough," he said. "It's different from other rounds and it isn't my favourite, but we need rallies like this in the championship. A world championship should have something of everything. To be successful the car must be strong and reliable and we proved in Greece that the Focus has those qualities. It will be hot and the speeds slow so it's important to be confident in the cooling package to ensure the car doesn't overheat.
"Because speeds are relatively slow, there is always the temptation to push too hard. When that happens the car slides wide into the slippery gravel and momentum and time is lost. It's important to be patient," he added.
* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force hard wear gravel tyres and teams are allowed to nominate two tread patterns. The standard pattern is relatively compact to ensure a maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the ground for the best possible grip and traction. The grooves can be hand cut to open them if there is a lot of loose gravel on the road surface or if the tracks become muddy. It will be available in medium and hard compound. The second pattern is the g-Force gravel H2, a hard compound tyre which is bigger than the traditional option. Debuted in Greece in June and designed specifically for hard surfaces and extreme conditions, the American company has produced a new evolution following development work during the summer.
* The team today (Friday) completes a four-day development test on the gravel roads of northern Spain. Gronholm drove for the first two days with Hirvonen taking over on Thursday and Friday. The team concentrated on perfecting car set-up for the rallies in Australia and New Zealand later in the season, but heavy rain made back-to-back comparison work difficult.
* The M-Sport run Stobart-VK Rally Team has entered three 2004-specification Focus RS WRCs. The two cars nominated for points will be driven by Britons Matthew Wilson / Michael Orr and Argentines Luis Perez Companc and Jose Maria Volta. The third car will be in the hands of Argentines Juan Pablo Raies / Jorge Perez Companc.
The route is broadly similar to 2005 with the rally centred around the Palais des Sports service park on the northern edge of Lemesos. Most of the action is based in the Troodos Mountains north of the city although the major innovation is a short asphalt stage through Lemesos old town on Sunday afternoon to end the rally. After a ceremonial start on the seafront on Thursday evening, each of the three legs comprises a morning loop of stages repeated during the afternoon. Much of Friday's opening leg is based in the very north of the Troodos, close to the border with the Turkish part of the island. The stages show several changes to the 2005 edition. The middle leg is based further south, close to Mt Olympus and west towards the resort of Paphos. The final leg is the shortest, covering tests north-east of Lemesos in the hilly and forested Machairas area. Drivers tackle 23 stages covering 331.34km in a route of 1172.74km.