Ford's title battle moves Down Under on Focus' anniversary Title chasing BP-Ford aims to strengthen its advantage at the head of the FIA World Rally Championship as the series returns to Australia where the latest generation Focus RS World Rally...
Ford's title battle moves Down Under on Focus' anniversary
Title chasing BP-Ford aims to strengthen its advantage at the head of the FIA World Rally Championship as the series returns to Australia where the latest generation Focus RS World Rally Car made its debut a year ago. The team takes an eight-point advantage to Perth for Rally Australia (26 - 29 October), the final occasion on which the WRC will visit the country's west coast, following a superb 1-2 finish in the mud of Turkey earlier this month.
Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen, whose fifth victory of the season in Turkey also narrowed the gap at the top of the drivers' championship to 25 points, have an excellent record on the unique ball-bearing like roads of Western Australia. The Finns claimed a hat-trick of wins from 2000 - 2002 and went on to claim the manufacturers' world title on each occasion.
BP-Ford World Rally Team colleagues Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen have less experience in Australia. However, they have finished on both previous starts, claiming fourth in 2004. The Focus RS WRC broke cover for the first time in Australia last year as a key part of its test programme. Since then it has scored five WRC wins in the 2006 championship to propel BP-Ford into the lead of the manufacturers' series with three of the 16 rounds remaining.
Rally Australia is a firm favourite of most, although the gravel speed tests are among the most demanding of the season. They have a hard base which is covered by millions of tiny circular stones. Not only are they extremely slippery, but the early cars to drive the fresh roads are at a considerable disadvantage as they sweep the stones clear to leave better grip for those behind.
An additional hazard is the close proximity of trees to the side of the road, which can severely punish even the smallest deviation from the correct line. A combination of the gravely surface and the trees demands precise handling, as well as maximum traction and grip from the team's BFGoodrich tyres.
Gronholm will have the least wanted job in the WRC on Friday's opening leg - that of being first car through the stages on the slippery stones. However, the 38-year-old Finn has a positive outlook on the difficulties of leading the field. "Australia is a special rally for me and one that I really like. Sebastien Loeb will still be injured so I will be first on the road on Friday. But I have previously set good times on those roads from the front. I prefer to think about that rather than talk about the difficulties. It's all to do with the mind - look at the positives and not the negatives," he said.
"It's a tough rally but the speeds are quite high, which I enjoy. It's important to stay on the right line and accurate pace notes are vital for that. This will be my eighth start here so I'm starting to know the roads pretty well. The 1-2 result in Turkey gave the team a real boost and having now moved into the lead of the manufacturers' championship, we'll do everything we can in Australia to strengthen our position," he added.
Hirvonen also enjoys Rally Australia, comparing the event to his home rally in Finland. "It's fast and flowing with many big jumps and it's one of my favourite events of the year," said 26-year-old Hirvonen. "It's unique because the loose gravel makes it so slippery and the jumps are different from other events. In Australia the car rarely flies straight so a driver doesn't know exactly where the car is going to land. It's rare to have a perfect landing - and that's something I like!
"We had a fantastic result for the team in Turkey and I felt really comfortable battling with the Solberg brothers at a faster pace than I had driven on other rallies recently. I've learned so much this year and one of the biggest things is that I feel more comfortable driving at a pace which is closer to Marcus' speed than earlier in the season. The team is full of confidence and hopefully we can show the same speed and reliability with the Focus as we did in Turkey," he added.
* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force gravel tyres and teams are only allowed to nominate one tread pattern this year. The pattern is relatively compact to ensure a maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the ground for the best possible grip and traction. The grooves can be hand cut to open them if there is a lot of loose gravel on the road surface or if the tracks become muddy. The tyres are available in soft, medium and hard compounds.
* The M-Sport run Stobart-VK Rally Team has entered two 2006-specification Focus RS WRCs for Britons Matthew Wilson / Michael Orr and Argentines Luis Perez Companc / Jose Maria Volta.
The route is virtually identical to last year and is again based around the riverside service park in Perth's Langley Park. The action opens at the city's Gloucester Park trotting track on Thursday evening with two passes over a spectacular super special stage, which is repeated at the end of Friday and Saturday's competition. Friday's opening leg takes competitors south of Perth for a group of stages clustered around the town of Dwellingup. Saturday's route heads south-east to the Bannister stages, formerly known as Bunnings, where the famous roller coaster jumps and watersplash provide some of the season's most dramatic images. Both days end with a short loop of tests east of Perth before the Gloucester Park stages. The final leg is the shortest and comprises two loops of stages near Mundaring, east of Perth. Competitors face 26 stages in all covering 348.51km in a total route of 1334.41.