Ford quartet aims for glory in Finland. Three wins in a row for Ford Rallye Sport has put a new complexion on the FIA World Rally Championship season and the team holds runner-up position in both manufacturers' and drivers' title races going...
Ford quartet aims for glory in Finland.
Three wins in a row for Ford Rallye Sport has put a new complexion on the FIA World Rally Championship season and the team holds runner-up position in both manufacturers' and drivers' title races going into round nine of the series in Finland. Entering four Focus RS World Rally Cars for this event, the team is full of confidence for one of the most difficult tasks of the campaign. A series which looked to be heading for an early finish has been revitalised by Ford's victories in Argentina, Greece and Kenya and the race for title honours is now wide open once again.
The strength and reliability of the Focus RS was clear for all to see on the toughest rounds of the 14-event series in Greece and Kenya as Colin McRae and Nicky Grist followed up the victory of team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya in South America. Ford has slashed Peugeot's lead in the manufacturers' standings from 41 points to just 14 while McRae and Sainz lie second and third in the drivers' series before Rally Finland (8 - 11 August).
Wide, flowing gravel tracks and a super-smooth surface guarantee breathtaking speeds on this, the fastest rally of the championship. Spectacular jumps and stunning scenery amid the lakes and forests help to draw in thousands of fans and create one of motorsport's great events in a country regarded as the spiritual home of rallying.
Precision driving and bravery are the requirements here more than on any other rally. The switchback jumps frequently hide bends just over the crest, placing a huge emphasis on a driver's skill to position the car accurately before the 'yump' to ensure the correct line on landing. It favours the locals, who have grown up on roads of this type, and their mastery is highlighted by the fact that only two drivers from outside the Nordic countries have ever won this rally.
Carlos Sainz is one of those and the 40-year-old Spaniard thinks Ford is well prepared for the unique challenges that are Rally Finland. "This is a remarkably high-speed event and everything about the car has to be 100% correct for a driver to have maximum confidence in tackling the stages," cautions Sainz. "Testing went very well and this year I think our chances of beating the Finns on their home ground are higher than ever. But you have to remember the best way to prepare for this rally is to be born Finnish and they are extremely motivated to win their home event."
Colin McRae has come so close to adding his name to the Finnish winners' list, claiming second in 2000 and third last year, driving a Focus World Rally Car on both occasions. "I'd love to score a 2002 hat-trick in Finland," enthuses Colin, "and I'll certainly go there with winning in mind, but this is still one of the most difficult rallies for a foreign driver to win. With more, narrower stages being used it is getting a little easier to challenge the Nordic drivers with their immense local knowledge, but it's still a particularly tough task to triumph on this high-speed event."
After a tremendous drive to fourth place on his Kenya debut in last month's Safari Rally - his best WRC result so far - Markko Märtin and Michael Park are looking forward to the smoother roads in Finland where they finished fifth in 2001. Rally Finland is effectively the home event for 26-year-old Märtin who lives just across the Baltic Sea in Estonia.
"All year long I have been eager to tackle this event and hope to do really well in front of so many of my Estonian fans," comments Markko. "For me it is my 'home' event - a round of the WRC I can actually drive to... and it is the world rally that I have most experience of, as 2002 will be my sixth Finnish outing. Unlike Kenya, you have to drive flat-out for three days to do well and much of that driving is in sixth gear! This rally demands maximum concentration and as a driver you are always very busy."
Young Belgian ace Francois Duval and Jean-Marc Fortin drive a fourth Focus RS World Rally Car in Finland. "I am really happy to return to Finland," declares Duval. "Last year I discovered Finland on my debut with the Super 1600 Puma and it is already my favourite rally on the WRC calendar. I love this rally with so many jumps, long flowing fast corners and lots of top-gear challenges which make it all a really exciting and challenging drive."
European champion Armin Kremer and co-driver Dieter Schneppenheim face another step in their season of learning in a privately-entered Focus RS. "I've never been to Rally Finland before, not even to attend as a spectator," says Kremer. "It will be interesting to drive the Focus on these roads, especially to experience the big jumps. It's such a special rally that I'm happy just to get a whole new experience."
In The Spotlight
"This event is all about high-speed stability, power and traction," explains team technical director Christian Loriaux. "We enjoyed a really productive test in Finland one month ago and the team will test for a couple of days before the recce to confirm our final chassis set-up choices. Despite all the jumps and sweeps, the rally cars repeatedly reach speeds over 200 kph and the engines spend more time at full throttle than on most other WRC events."
The route is a familiar one and the biggest change is the introduction of a single service park at Jyväskylä Paviljonki, the rally base throughout. The action starts with a super special at the Killeri trotting track outside Jyväskylä on Thursday evening. As in 2001, Friday will again take competitors north before a repeat of the Killeri test in the evening. As has been the custom since the 1980s, Saturday's leg winds its way south-west and is the longest of the event with more than 176km of competition and 15 hours on the road. It includes two runs of the Ouninpohja test, one of the classic stages of the championship season. The final leg runs west of Jyväskylä and comprises two loops of three stages, including a new stage of which just a short section has been used previously. The rally finishes in Jyväskylä at 15.46 after 401.68km of competition in a route of 1703.32km.