Ford Rally Weekly News 98-03-16

FIA World Rally Championship The Ford Martini World Rally team has made an exceptional start to the FIA World Rally Championship season with the all-new Ford Focus World Rally Car. Team director Malcolm Wilson looks back at the opening ...

FIA World Rally Championship

The Ford Martini World Rally team has made an exceptional start to the FIA World Rally Championship season with the all-new Ford Focus World Rally Car. Team director Malcolm Wilson looks back at the opening three rallies of the 14-round series and looks ahead at what is still to come. VICTORY ON LAST MONTH'S SAFARI RALLY CONCLUDED A REMARKABLE BEGINNING TO THE NEW SEASON FOR THE FORD MARTINI TEAM AND THE FORD FOCUS. HAS IT SURPRISED YOU THAT THE CAR HAS BEEN SO COMPETITIVE SO QUICKLY? "There's no question, our results on the first three rallies of the season have been well ahead of our expectations but we know there's still a tremendously long way to go on the performance side. To set fastest stage times in Monte Carlo, the first rally for the Ford Focus, was a clear indication that we were heading in the right direction and we have continued to make progress in Sweden and Kenya." AND THE VICTORY IN KENYA? "That was a fantastic moment for everyone in the team. Everyone involved in the programme has put so much effort into making it a success and winning the Safari, one of the most famous rallies in the world and certainly the toughest in the championship, was a great reward. Colin and Nicky never had to push the Focus to the limit. A consistent pace and reliability won the rally." THIS WEEK'S RALLY OF PORTUGAL IS THE FIRST TRUE GRAVEL RALLY OF THE CHAMPIONSHIP. WHAT DO YOU THINK THE FORD MARTINI TEAM CAN ACHIEVE? "There's no reason why we can't finish on the podium on any rally between now and the Rally of New Zealand in July. But we see New Zealand as the potential turning point of the season. Our target is for the Focus to be sufficiently developed to be on a par with our rivals by then and that's when I think we will be in the position to challenge for victory on every rally. Winning in Portugal will be asking a lot of the car at this stage in our programme because it's a sprint-type rally and we're still behind our rivals in terms of development. IN WHAT AREAS? "The Ford Focus is still considerably heavier than the other cars and that's a definite disadvantage on a rally like Portugal where the only tactic is to drive flat-out from the start. But we're reducing the weight rally by rally and by the time we get to New Zealand we'll be on level terms with the others. It's also important to maintain our reliability because every time we finish a rally we learn more about the Focus and the information and data can be used in our continuing development. " The Rally of Portugal, round four of the FIA World Rally Championship, starts in Porto on Sunday. After their emphatic victory on Kenya's Safari Rally last month, Colin McRae and Nicky Grist lead the Ford Martini World Rally team into action with a new outlook on their season. Their near 15 minute victory on the toughest round of the series, on only the third event for the new Ford Focus World Rally Car, has raised expectations for the rest of the year. "I haven't ruled out winning the championship, I now think that's a realistic goal. It was always in the back of my mind but we thought it would take us the first half of the year to make the Focus truly competitive. Our Safari victory, coming after excellent performances in Monte Carlo and Sweden, has shown everyone that the Focus is much closer to a front-running pace than anyone thought it would be at this stage of the season," said McRae.

"Another top three finish is definitely a possibility but the question is whether we have the edge to fight for victory just yet on a sprint-type gravel rally. The car is still heavier than we would like but that's something that the team is working hard to sort out. This rally has a mixture of rough and smooth roads but we know from our experiences in Kenya that the Focus can take the rough sections without a problem."

McRae's team-mate in Portugal will be Norway's Petter Solberg. Solberg, who drove magnificently in Kenya to finish fifth on only his fourth World Championship rally, will be accompanied by regular co-driver Phil Mills after benefiting enormously from the experience of three-times Safari Rally winning co-driver Fred Gallagher in Kenya.

"This should be easier for me than Kenya - but not much! I've never even been to Portugal before and my only experience of the rally is watching a video of last year's event on television last week. I won't take any chances, just try to learn the nature of the roads and judge my pace accordingly," said Solberg. For the first time in the rally's history, the start, every rest halt and the finish are in the same town, ensuring one of the FIA World Championship's leading events moves ever closer to the more modern 'clover leaf' format favoured by teams. Portugal used to boast some of the longest stages in the championship but the average length of stages on this year's event is one of the shortest in the series at just over 17km. A fraction under 400km of all-gravel stages await drivers in a total route of 1809km with a super special at Baltar replacing the traditional test at the Lousada Rallycross circuit as the opening stage of the event. Ford Martini driver Thomas Rådström has made such a good recovery from last month's broken leg that he is testing a Ford Focus this week in Portugal. Rådström is undergoing an intensive fitness programme, including twice daily cycling. Although he will miss next week's Rally of Portugal, the Swede should be fit for his next scheduled appearance on May's Rally Argentina.

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Series WRC
Drivers Colin McRae , Petter Solberg , Thomas Radstrom , Nicky Grist , Malcolm Wilson