Rally Australia: Ford preview

Ford and Martin face gripping battle in the battle for grip Having achieved the near-impossible and conquered the Finnish drivers on home ground earlier this month in the most specialised round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Ford BP ...

Ford and Martin face gripping battle in the battle for grip

Having achieved the near-impossible and conquered the Finnish drivers on home ground earlier this month in the most specialised round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Ford BP Rallye Sport team goes Down Under in search of its third victory of the season. While the Rally Australia (4 - 7 September) is a firm favourite of most competitors, the gravel roads of Western Australia will place a different, but equally demanding, burden on the drivers as the fight for world titles reaches a crucial part of the year.

Markko Martin and Michael Park's second win of the year in Finland thrust themselves and their Castrol-branded Ford Focus RS World Rally Car firmly into the title spotlight with five of the 14 rounds remaining. They lie sixth in the drivers' standings, just 12 points from the lead, and that position may give them a significant advantage over the tricky gravel roads close to the rally base of Perth.

The event is characterised by tracks which have a hard base covered by millions of tiny marble-like stones. As a result they are extremely slippery and the first cars to tackle the speed tests are at a considerable disadvantage as they sweep the stones clear to provide better grip for those behind. Martin and Park's championship position means they will start the opening leg in sixth, behind all the drivers ahead of them in the points table, and that offers the opportunity to make significant time gains during the first day.

"It's quite a good place to be on a rally in which conditions usually improve with the passage of every car as the stones are cleared out of the way," said 27-year-old Martin. "Few stages are run twice and a strong opening day ensures a good start position for the second leg and vice-versa so it can really make or break the event."

However, there is a huge element of unpredictability about this year's rally. Traditionally held at the start of November when the early summer sunshine matches the warmth of the welcome received in the state's capital city, a date two months earlier offers the likelihood of rain in what is still Australia's winter. Not only would that negate Martin's potential advantage, but wet weather will make the clay surface muddy and rutted - conditions few have experienced in Australia.

Martin, starting the rally for the third time, finished fifth in 2002 and admits he struggled to match the leaders' pace on an event of which he has comparatively little experience. "On last year's performance, we have to make a hell of a step forward to close that gap but we've already seen the new Focus RS make that step on other events so we'll try as hard as we can to also make it happen here.

"It's a rally where you can't afford to make mistakes. Speeds are high and it's crucial you don't slide off-line on the slippery stones. There are no ditches to save yourself if you do and with trees right on the very edge of the roads, if you make an error, you can be in big trouble," added Martin.

Ford BP team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot will also start Rally Australia for the third time. The 22-year-old Belgian driver knows only too well how tricky the roads can be after sliding wide and crashing out of sixth place on the final day last year. "It's important to stay cool, neat and tidy with my driving," he said. "I like the rally and until we crashed last year, our performance was pretty good.

"My experience of the event is quite good but maybe this year it's important to continue perfecting my pace notes for the future rather than chasing a top placing. Accurate pace notes are important anywhere but maybe more so in Australia than on most other rallies because there's no room for an error. The trees are close to the road and a wrong note can be costly," said Duval, who stressed that last year's crash was not the result of incorrect pace notes.

Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will continue their season of learning at the wheel of a 2002-specification Focus RS. It will be 23-year-old Hirvonen's first time on the Rally Australia and his principal aim will once again be to gather as much experience as possible of the tricky Western Australian roads.

"I've never been to the rally before so everything will be new," he said. "For me it's the same situation as the rest of the season because before the start of the year I had driven only three of the 14 rounds previously. Having spoken to Markko and Francois, I know that the Australian stages are difficult but until I see them for myself it will be hard to develop any real opinions."

Team News

* Earlier this month, the Ford BP team completed two successful asphalt tests ahead of October's daunting schedule of three asphalt rallies in four weeks. A five-day test on roads close to Vic in north-east Spain enabled Martin and Duval to confirm a base set-up specification for the Rallye Catalunya. Both also concentrated on tyre testing and development work on new features for the Focus RS. Martin, who drove for three days, completed 413km and Duval 245km in air temperatures of 38C.

* Martin also completed two days of wet weather tyre development on Michelin's asphalt test track at Ladoux in France. The Estonian, who claimed Michelin's 200th world rally success in Finland, completed 212km on an artificially soaked track to analyse new compounds.

* Duval joined former British champion Mark Higgins and Jordan-Ford GP pilot Ralph Firman as VIP guests at the Ford RS Owners' Club day at the Donington Park race circuit in England. Duval and Higgins gave passenger rides to auction winners in a Focus RS World Rally Car and the three drivers gave additional rides in a Focus RS road car.

* Senior BP personnel were given a taste of life as a WRC co-driver when Duval treated them to a passenger ride in a Focus RS World Rally Car in Whinlatter Forest, close to the team's headquarters at Dovenby Hall in England.

Rally Route

This year's rally has undergone several changes, the most notable of which is a new venue for the superspecial stage. For the last 11 years, the famous Langley Park location overlooking Perth's Swan River hosted the test where crowds of over 20,000 flocked to watch dramatic head-to-head floodlit action over the jumps and sweeping hairpin bends. The stage has been switched to the trotting track at Gloucester Park, around 1km away and opposite the famous WACA cricket ground, where organisers are confident of recreating the same atmosphere. In keeping with tradition, the competition will begin there on Thursday evening with a repeat on Friday and two more runs on Saturday. The other changes are to suit the requirement for a single service park at Jarrahdale, close to the shakedown base in recent years. The opening leg is the longest with 145.20km of competition and heads south for tests around the town of Dwellingup. The more compact middle leg covers stages east of Perth while the final day is in the Sotico plantation, better known by its former name of Bunnings, with its famous roller coaster jumps and watersplash which provide some of the year's most spectacular action. The 24 stages cover 386.31km in a route of 1795.16km.

For more information: Contact Mark Wilford or Georgina Baskerville on the Ford BP Rallye Sport media desk in Perth Tel: + 61 8 9218 8635 Fax: + 61 8 9218 8705


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Series WRC