Rally Australia: Ford preview

BP-Ford bids to extend winning run in Rally Australia BP-Ford World Rally Team will aim for its third consecutive victory when the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship comes to a close in Australia next week. Back-to-back victories for Markko ...

BP-Ford bids to extend winning run in Rally Australia

BP-Ford World Rally Team will aim for its third consecutive victory when the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship comes to a close in Australia next week. Back-to-back victories for Markko Märtin and Michael Park in France and Spain have left the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car pair heading Down Under for a three-way battle to claim the runners-up spot in the drivers' series on the Rally Australia (11 - 14 November).

The 16th and final round of the season will bring to an end an exciting four-week period for the BP-Ford squad. Märtin and Park's double victories on European asphalt were accompanied by Ford securing second in the manufacturers' championship, with one round remaining. And earlier this week Ford committed to the championship for the next four seasons, announcing a cost-effective business plan tailored around the new-generation Focus road car, which goes on sale in Europe this month. A new Focus rally car will be the team's challenger from 2006.

The Western Australia capital of Perth hosts the event. While it is a firm favourite of most competitors, the gravel speed tests are among the most demanding of the season. They have a hard base, which is covered by millions of tiny ball-bearing like stones. As a result, the roads are extremely slippery and the first cars to drive unused special stages are at a considerable disadvantage as they sweep the stones clear to provide better grip for those behind.

After one season in September, the rally reverts to its more traditional November date, when the early summer sunshine matches the warmth of the welcome. It is the first time that the championship has finished outside Europe since 1980 when it ended in the Ivory Coast.

Märtin faces opposition from two drivers in his quest for second in the championship. Carlos Sainz must win the rally and hope other results go in his favour to be runner-up. Petter Solberg has a three point advantage over Märtin and has more wins if the tiebreak rule comes into use, meaning the BP-Ford driver must score four more points than his Norwegian rival.

"I have the chance to finish second in the championship and that would be my best position to date," said the 28-year-old Estonian. "That's my aim and to finish second in both the drivers' and manufacturers' championships would represent a solid season. I don't have a good record on this event, but confidence is high in the team and I think we can make a good rally.

"Rally Australia is a very difficult event. The roads are mostly man-made and there's not really any flow to them from a driving perspective. The loose gravel makes them slippery on the first pass through the stages and I really can't afford to make mistakes. Speeds are high, the tracks are narrow in places and there are no ditches to land in if a driver does make an error. Instead there are often trees right on the edge of the road and a small mistake on the slippery stones can mean big trouble.

"This rally is well-known for the jumps in Sotico on the final day. Unfortunately I don't know too much about them because, I have only reached the last leg once. They look incredibly spectacular from outside the car, but from the inside I just remember them as big jumps," added Märtin.

BP-Ford team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot are also keen to improve their record in Australia. The 23-year-old Belgian driver claimed his best result from three starts last season, when he was 10th in a Focus RS.

"I think a top five finish is possible," he said. "It's the last rally of the season and all the titles are decided so maybe the atmosphere will be more relaxed than usual. But I want to finish as high as possible, so I'll try as hard as ever.

"This year the rally is in early summer so the roads should be drier than in 2003. This will mean more loose gravel and they will be even more slippery. The further down the order, the cleaner the stages are. I will start in sixth on the first day, behind the five drivers ahead of me in the championship, so I think that should be quite a good position," he said.

Duval and Prévot will prepare new pace notes for the whole rally. "Last year I changed my pace notes and they weren't good. This year many of the stages use the same roads, but in a different route. So rather than modify my notes again, I'm going to make new notes for every stage," Duval explained.

Team News

* BP-Ford has nominated Michelin's Z and ZE pattern gravel tyres. The Z tyre, the French company's standard dry weather pattern, will be cut to provide the best grip on Australia's unique ball-bearing surface. The ZE is a narrower tyre of a similar pattern but more suitable for wet or muddy roads. It is also particularly effective for cars running high up the starting order on roads covered with loose gravel, as it is especially suited to cut through to the hard surface beneath.

* Märtin celebrates his 29th birthday on Wednesday. There will be little time for him to celebrate as his day will start with the recce at 07.00 and end with the shakedown at the Gloucester Park super special stage, which finishes at 21.00. Duval will celebrate his 24th birthday on 18 November.

* The rally will be Duval's 50th WRC start. His first was the Rally of Portugal in 2001.

Rally Route

The Western Australia roads are all familiar, although organisers have made minor modifications to some stage routes and mixed up the order to suit the central service location. This year the service park has moved to Gloucester Park, on the fringes of Perth city centre and also host to the spectacular floodlit super special stage which will be run five times during the opening two legs. The competition will begin there on Thursday evening and drivers will repeat the test twice each on Friday and Saturday evenings. Friday's opening leg is the longest with tests south of Perth, close to the towns of Harvey and Dwellingup. The second leg concentrates on tests east of the city. The final day begins in the same location before heading south to Sotico plantation, better known by its former name of Bunnings. Its famous roller coaster jumps and watersplash provide some of the year's most spectacular action. Each leg features one remote tyre and refuel zone away from Perth with limited opportunity for repairs. The 25 tests cover 388.25km in a total route of 1426.56km.


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Series WRC