Ford bids for double world title in Britain Ford starts the four-day Rally of Great Britain (22 - 25 Nov) intent on claiming both manufacturers' and drivers' FIA World Rally Championship titles in what promises to be the most exciting climax to...
Ford bids for double world title in Britain
Ford starts the four-day Rally of Great Britain (22 - 25 Nov) intent on claiming both manufacturers' and drivers' FIA World Rally Championship titles in what promises to be the most exciting climax to the series ever. The Ford Martini team faces a head-to-head fight with Peugeot for the manufacturers' crown. Championship leader Colin McRae and team-mate Carlos Sainz can both win the drivers' title as four crews face a thrilling showdown in the Welsh forests for the ultimate honour.
Never has the final round offered such anticipation. Ford are four points behind Peugeot in the manufacturers' series. McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist lead the drivers' standings in their Focus RS World Rally Car by one point from Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi), with Richard Burns (Subaru) another point back. Sainz and Luis Moya are the outsiders, lying nine points behind McRae in their Focus RS.
The permutations are many but essentially the drivers' series is a winner-takes-all situation. Victory for any of the top three would assure them the title, while Sainz must win and hope his rivals fail to score. Home advantage could be crucial over the gravel forest tracks and the outcome could develop into a British duel between McRae and Burns in front of thousands of passionate fans.
"This is the toughest situation I've ever been in, and for Richard as well," said McRae. "One thing that I've got as an advantage over him is a little more experience. I've been in high pressure situations a bit more and generally have come out on top. It's going to be one of the toughest fights we'll ever have. We've developed the Focus from nothing into the world championship challenger it is today so I think if we do win it'll be more satisfying than my 1995 world title.
"It would have been great to win the championship in Australia. We could have relaxed and had a bit of fun in Britain but I'm looking forward to the challenge and I think it's going to be a great finish to the year. If we win, we win the world title so it's quite straightforward and sometimes that's the best way to start an event," said the 33-year-old Scot, three times a winner of the rally.
Sainz, already a double world champion, is realistic about his chances of a third title. "My chances of winning are quite remote but while there is still a chance I must be ready to take it should it arise. My main targets are to help the team win the manufacturers' title and to give every help to Colin. It's a little disappointing that the team is in second because we could have been in a better position so we must make sure we make no mistakes," added the 39-year-old Madrid-based driver.
"The Welsh stages are quite slippery in parts and normally quite difficult. It's easy to make a mistake and slide off the road and the unpredictable weather always adds an extra element of difficulty to the rally," added Sainz.
A third Focus RS will be driven by Mark Higgins and Bryan Thomas, the Isle of Man-born driver making his debut with Ford. Foot and Mouth disease wiped out their British Championship programme this year so this will be their first Focus drive.
"It's the biggest drive of my career," said the 30-year-old Manxman, British champion in 1997. "It's a big shame we've not been able to rally this year and I think it'll take a few stages to get back into the rhythm, both for me from a driving point of view and for Bryan with the pace notes.
"It will be fantastic to have a car that has been set-up properly by Colin and Carlos during the season. It's a case of getting in there, and driving it to the best of my ability. I know what my targets are but I'll keep those to myself and we'll see at the end whether I've achieved them," said Higgins.
FIA Super 1600 Championship
The rally also marks the final round of the inaugural series for 1600cc front-wheel drive cars, regarded as the junior world championship. Six Ford Puma cars will start, headed by third-placed Norwegian Martin Stenshorne and sixth-placed Belgian François Duval, who recently signed a contract for an expanded world championship programme with Ford next season. The rally promises to be the most open of the year with Duval and Britain's Martin Rowe likely to be leading the Ford challenge. The title has already been won by Sebastien Loeb (Citroen).
Challenge of the Rally of Great Britain
The vagaries of Britain's winter weather can make or break a title bid. The days are gone when a five-day loop of the country offered conditions that varied from region to region and day to day. But the unpredictable nature of the weather is always a concern and can leave drivers facing the two most difficult driving conditions in the sport - fog and black ice.
Damp and dismal early mornings can often produce thick fog high on the mountains or lingering between the trees down in the valleys. Such conditions call for pin-point pace note delivery from co-drivers and bravery from drivers willing to hurl their cars through the gloom at barely unabated speeds with visibility often down to tens of metres.
Ice can prove just as hazardous. Unlike the two other winter rallies in the series in Monte Carlo and Sweden, studded tyres which provide grip in such conditions are not allowed in Britain leaving drivers to cope with standard rally rubber. Although gravel crews pass through the stages a couple of hours before the drivers to check conditions and modify pace notes where necessary, black ice is notoriously difficult to spot and many drivers regard these conditions as being an even worse danger than fog.
The rally is again based entirely in Wales and follows the most compact route in the event's history. The mid-Wales stages have been scrapped and the action is now based totally in the south, the rally using just one service area throughout at Felindre, north of Swansea. The action begins with the longest leg of all, starting on Thursday with an evening super special in Cardiff before continuing the next morning on a long anti-clockwise journey through south Wales. The second leg visits similar territory, ending with a repeat of the super special, before the final day is based entirely in the mountain forests just north of Cardiff. Drivers will cover 380.86km of competition in a total route of 1714.77km.