Thursday, 18 April 2002 The FIA World Rally Championship moves to gravel for its fifth round, the Cyprus Rally, which starts in Limassol tomorrow morning. But the sport's top drivers know that this year's adventure on the Mediterranean island ...
Thursday, 18 April 2002
The FIA World Rally Championship moves to gravel for its fifth round, the Cyprus Rally, which starts in Limassol tomorrow morning. But the sport's top drivers know that this year's adventure on the Mediterranean island could be the most unpredictable since Cyprus joined the WRC in 2000. A switch to a spring date has resulted in mixed conditions - the stifling heat of previous years has been absent during the event build-up, and there was even a thunderstorm and a hail shower at the final shakedown this morning.
World championship leader Marcus Grönholm will be hoping that the damp conditions return for tomorrow morning's stages, since he will have to run first on the road and if conditions are dry, that will place him as gravel sweeper for his rivals. In truth, though, the first half-dozen crews are all likely to suffer in the often-deep loose gravel, so front-runners like Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae, Tommi Mäkinen and Richard Burns will have to watch for potential pacesetters further down the starting order. In particular, both Hyundai (which brings Juha Kankkunen to its line-up for this event) and Mitsubishi (which adds Jani Paasonen) will be hoping for improved fortunes after difficulties on the recent asphalt rallies.
PEUGEOT (1st - 52 points)
Technical: Peugeot sends four 206 WRCs to Cyprus - the first time that the team has entered so many cars since Australia last year. All are fitted with regular anti-roll bars, not the hydraulic units that have seen action on the recent asphalt events. Peugeot is hoping that extensive testing and development will have made the 206 WRC a reliable proposition on rough gravel - the surface was its principal weak spot during last year's title-winning campaign.
Sporting: Peugeot brings back Harri Rovanperä to its manufacturers points nominations as the world championship returns to gravel, but the French manufacturer fields its usual driver line-up in any case. Marcus Grönholm and Richard Burns will score manufacturers' points for the team alongside Rovanperä, while Gilles Panizzi will use a full factory-spec car to gain further experience on gravel.
Quotes: Marcus Grönholm said: "I'll certainly end up losing some time tomorrow morning but maybe it won't be so bad. As for the car, it feels a bit stronger but then, I'm sure the stages here are actually a bit rougher this year. It might be slightly better for me if it rains tomorrow morning but I don't think it'll be very nice for anyone if that happens."
Harri Rovanperä said: "My starting position is sixth on the road for tomorrow which isn't the best place but is certainly better than Marcus. I think we can surprise some people here because the car has been very good in testing, very strong. Cyprus Rally last year was the first event for this evolution of the car and since then, we've learnt a lot more about the set-up."
FORD (2nd - 25 points)
Technical: Ford has made only minimal changes to the Focus WRC for this event. A different specification of sump guard, developed in the final few months of last year, allows the car a little extra ground clearance. All of the Focuses will run using the older-spec roll cage, not the new design that was introduced in Catalunya. Colin McRae's car, meanwhile, will be fitted with a regular gearshift as the Scot continues his recovery from his Tour of Corsica accident.
Sporting: Ford nominates its three usual drivers - Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and Markko Martin - as well as running a fourth 2002-specification Focus for young Belgian star François Duval. Sainz's navigator Luis Moya will return to the co-driver's seat on this event, even though the injuries he sustained in a Catalunya testing accident have yet to fully heal.
Quotes: Carlos Sainz said: "In the past the Ford has been a good package here so we should be quite optimistic, but this will be a difficult rally. It's maybe a little bit rougher this year, and it'll be hard to tell what will happen if it rains. I hope it stays dry."
Malcolm Wilson said: "For us it would be much better if it's dry and hot, since our car has a good record in those conditions and the roads would also be cleaned by the first few crews as well. We've won this rally both years since it came into the world championship but I'm not expecting it to be as easy this time around."
Luis Moya said: "I'm in a bit of pain all the time - it's pretty much constant instead of getting worse over the bumps - but it's not quite as bad as I expected. I never thought about missing this event for a second. I wanted to be here and I'm here."
SUBARU (3rd - 20 points)
Technical: Subaru has made few changes to the Impreza WRC2002 for its first appearance on gravel, although the team did slot in an extra test yesterday to allow Petter Solberg to evaluate some new-specification dampers on his car. Engineers have concentrated on keeping the crew cool, since the roof-mounted air vent has to be closed on this event to prevent clouds of dust from entering the cockpit. Extra fans have been fitted inside the Impreza to compensate for this. Solberg has a new car for this event - one of only two top works drivers to do so.
Sporting: Subaru enters its two regular drivers, Tommi Mäkinen and Petter Solberg.
Quotes: Petter Solberg said: "We had a good test for this event and I think we've made some quite big steps forward on gravel settings. I think we've got a good chance to achieve an excellent result here - after the last few rallies on asphalt the next few rallies have been good to Subaru and Pirelli in the past. I hope that will be the case in 2002 as well!"
Technical Director David Lapworth said: "This event is still quite a challenge, even if the temperatures are lower this year. The key is really to have durability and then keep your fingers crossed that you don't come across a bad rock in the middle of the road. Our feeling is that this event can mark a turning point in the season - we've now got ten rallies left and of those, only two are on asphalt. I think we've still got a good chance, especially in the drivers' championship."
MITSUBISHI (4th - 6 points)
Technical: Mitsubishi Ralliart has not changed much of the Lancer Evo WRC's gravel specification since it last appeared on this surface on the Rally GB last November. But the team has tested extensively and altered differential maps and suspension geometry. Drivers report improved turn-in as a result. Mitsubishi has also introduced lower gear-ratios to cope with the twisty Cyprus roads. François Delecour is one of only two top works drivers to have a new car at his disposal for this event.
Sporting: Mitsubishi brings a third car to Cyprus. Alongside regular pilots François Delecour and Alister McRae, Finnish driver Jani Paasonen will make his second appearance for the team. Paasonen, who previously drove a Lancer in Sweden, will be nominated for manufacturers' points.
Quotes: Alister McRae said: "We've obviously worked hard on the gravel set-up of the car since we tested just after Network Q Rally GB last year. It's certainly felt good during testing, although that doesn't tell us where we'll be against the other guys. I'm reasonably confident that we'll be more capable of challenging here than we were on asphalt on the last few events. The car needs to be strong for this event and it's felt strong."
Jani Paasonen said: "I'm really just looking to have a clean run and see what I can do for Mitsubishi. We didn't get a chance to test for this event so tomorrow will be about settling in. It's going to be hard for me to judge my speed - I want to be quick enough to impress people but this is the sort of rally where one silly mistake can mean retirement, so I've got to be careful too."
HYUNDAI (5th - 1 point)
Technical: Hyundai has concentrated on honing the Accent WRC3 for its first appearance on gravel. Cyprus also marks the first time that the team has used Proflex dampers on loose surfaces. That aside, the team's rally partner Motor Sport Developments has focused on fine tuning differential settings and testing durability. The team's preparations weren't helped when its pre-event test was hit by poor weather, including a day of snow.
Sporting: Regular drivers Armin Schwarz and Freddy Loix are joined by four-times world champion Juha Kankkunen in Hyundai's manufacturers points-nominated Accent WRC3s on this event. The team is also fielding a fourth Accent in the hands of Polish driver Tomasz Kuchar - the appearance is form of compensation after he failed to complete a single stage on his first outing for Hyundai, then failed to start in his second.
Quotes: Freddy Loix said: "I have quite a good feeling with the car on gravel already - it's an easier car to drive than the Lancer I used last year, much better for turn-in in corners. I don't know what we can expect here - we've been close to the points a few times but not really managed to complete the performance so hopefully here we can get a clean run and take advantage of the road position. We've experimented a bit with the suspension and dampers and I feel I have a good set-up now."
SKODA (6th- 0 points )
Technical: Skoda sends three Octavia WRCs to this event, although their specification differs slightly from car to car. Finn Toni Gardemeister has retained the mechanical rear differential, but both Kenneth Eriksson and Roman Kresta have opted to use the 'active' rear differential instead - it's the first time that the system has been fitted to cars for a gravel event.
Sporting: Skoda has entered three manufacturers points-nominated Octavia WRCs for this event. Toni Gardemeister and Kenneth Eriksson will be joined in the line-up by the young Czech driver Roman Kresta. A fourth car, run by satellite team David Sutton Cars, will be driven by Group N World Champion Gabriel Pozzo.
Quotes: Kenneth Eriksson said: "I've worked a lot with the active rear differential and I believe we can make it a lot better for our speed, so I wanted to use it here. In basic form there's not much difference between it and the regular mechanical unit but it does allow you more opportunities to change settings on braking and acceleration. Already I feel that the settings we've found give me a little bit more traction - more bite - exiting corners. As for this rally, I'm quite confident that the Octavia is strong enough but you also need luck. In places you can find a rock pulled out by a car in front and that will end your event."
Citroen is missing the Cyprus Rally, although the team continues to hone the Xsara WRC to gravel and rough surfaces. It recently spent time in Kenya and it is also scheduled to test in Argentina.
Beyond the factory World Rally Car entries, drivers like Achim Mortl and Bruno Thiry (both in Peugeot 206 WRCs) and Janne Tuohino (Ford Focus WRC) will be hoping to inch into the top ten.
Cyprus is the third round of the FIA World Rally Championship for Production Cars and most of the leading protagonists are present. Kristian Sohlberg and Ramon Ferreyros currently head the points table, although both have reverted back to Evo 6 Mitsubishi Lancers for Cyprus after recent outings in the latest Evo 7 version. Much attention will focus on Toshihiro Arai, though - the Japanese driver, who holds third in the series standings, will give Subaru's latest Group N Impreza its debut on this event. Developed by Prodrive, the new car is expected to provide the sternest challenge yet to Mitsubishi at this level.
Michelin has introduced a new base tyre for this event - the first time that's happened in the world championship since the French manufacturer first used its ZE tyre in Australia in 1999. The new GW tyre is specifically designed to cope with rough, hard surfaces.