Rally Argentina: Ford preview

Ford BP gets passionate in the Argentine pampas Ford BP Rallye Sport will aim to match the high level of fervour displayed by the passionate Latin fans as it strives to extend its strong record in south America on the Rally Argentina (15 - 18 ...

Ford BP gets passionate in the Argentine pampas

Ford BP Rallye Sport will aim to match the high level of fervour displayed by the passionate Latin fans as it strives to extend its strong record in south America on the Rally Argentina (15 - 18 July) next week. The FIA World Rally Championship reaches its midpoint in the pampas of Cordoba province, territory where Ford's Focus RS World Rally Car has won twice in the last three seasons.

After three consecutive hot weather, rough road events, round eight of the 16-event series brings smoother and faster roads than drivers have been used to. And Markko Märtin and Michael Park and team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot will start the four-day event, based in the tourist town of Villa Carlos Paz, boosted by improvements to the Cosworth Racing-built engines in their Focus RS cars.

While the sandy gravel roads are more forgiving than recent events, Ford BP will not fall into the trap of believing this is an easier event. Frequent surface changes and soft roads that often become rutted when used for a second time demand high reliability. And the notorious Giulio Césare and El Condor tests in the Traslasierra mountains, which conclude the rally on Sunday, will provide a sting in the tail. Large rocks are usually unearthed here and many drivers have seen a strong performance end in vain amid the spectacular lunar-like scenery.

A never-ending stream of river crossings and stunning scenery throughout provides superb viewing for the south American fans, who flock into the speed tests in huge numbers. Last year more than 1.3million spectators watched the event, providing a crackling atmosphere as impromptu roadside fiestas spring up alongside the special stages.

This year's event is two months later than in 2003, deep in the Argentine winter. Overnight temperatures are likely to dip below freezing although snow, while possible in the higher stages, is thought to be unlikely.

Märtin and Park, who are third in the championship in their Castrol-branded Focus RS, are looking forward to tackling a rally that is faster than recent events. "I enjoy the faster rallies more than the slower ones," said 28-year-old Märtin. "There's usually more excitement on the quicker events and that suits me. There's nothing too technical about the stages although there are some sections that are quite tricky which require caution. My results on the last two rounds were disappointing so it's important that we achieve a good points finish here to keep both my own and Ford's championship position healthy."

The Estonian, who has started the rally just twice, has never competed on the tests to the south near Santa Rosa de Calamuchita. "I made pace notes for those stages during the recce in 2001 when they were last used. But I didn't start the rally that year so it will be a new experience for me and quite a few other drivers as well. At least I have the base notes from which to work during the recce," he added.

Duval made his debut in Argentina last year, when he finished eighth, although Prévot has five previous starts to his credit. "I practised the rally in 2002 and competed last year but there are quite a few stages in this year's route that I have not driven competitively," said the 23-year-old Belgian driver. "That's a disadvantage when compared to people like Carlos Sainz and Marcus Grönholm who have driven here many times but for the younger drivers, like me, it means there is no big difference in our experience level.

"The rally is in the winter this year and that could make conditions different to what most people are used to. I won't attack too much because it's important that I finish and learn the roads for the future but I think it's still possible to finish in the top five. It's quite a difficult rally but one I like. The roads are quite open and fast and it's necessary to cut the bends at every opportunity," added Duval.

The Focus RS cars will boast an upgraded engine specification. "It's an interim specification between the unit we used in Turkey and our new version," explained Cosworth Racing's principal engineer Tim Proctor. "We're still not 100% confident on the durability of the new specification over a full rally distance so certain elements have been incorporated to the older unit to give an interim version."

Team News

* Markko Märtin and Michael Park will warm-up for the Rally Finland when they drive a Focus RS WRC on the Pirelli Rally in Finland on July 31. The event is based in Tampere and the fast gravel special stages will allow the duo to 'tune in' to the kind of speeds that will be seen on the fastest round of the world championship a week later. The Pirelli Rally will complete a week's testing in Finland during which Janne Tuohino and François Duval will also drive.

* Märtin will star at the PlayStation 2 Rally Experience at Punchestown in Ireland later this month. He will drive a Focus RS WRC at the all-asphalt sprint event near Dublin on Sunday July 25. Thirty of Ireland's best drivers will challenge Märtin at an event which former Ford driver Colin McRae won in a Focus RS in front of more than 20,000 fans two years ago.

* The team diverted Duval's Rally of Turkey entry car to Germany's Baumholder military land after last weekend's Rally Deutschland test was interrupted by an accident. Duval hit one of the massive kerbstones which line the roads there on Saturday and the Focus RS WRC was too badly damaged to continue. His Rally of Turkey car was returning to Britain so the team diverted it to Baumholder. It was re-prepared to asphalt specification and Duval completed the test on Monday.

Rally Route

Organisers have dropped last year's compact set-up in favour of a return to its traditional format of visiting the three valleys in the sierras of Cordoba, each offering stages of differing character and landscape. After the now traditional opening at the Pro-Racing super special stages near the rally base of Villa Carlos Paz on Thursday evening, the first full day is based in the Punilla Valley to the north. Leg two is a mix of the flowing stages in the Calamuchita Valley to the south and the Punilla Valley. A shorter final day ends amid the rocky speed tests high in the Traslasierra mountains, and brings the return of El Condor and Giulio Césare, two of the most famous and toughest stages in the entire championship, which peak at almost 2200 metres. The Pro-Racing tests will be repeated at the end of the first and second legs. Also back is the picture postcard finish ceremony in Cordoba's soccer stadium. Drivers face 26 stages covering 382.63km of competition in a route of 1347.27km.


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Series WRC