Rally Catalunya: Ford preview

BP-Ford aims high with Focus on Spanish asphalt After a dominant victory earlier this month on the asphalt roads of Corsica, BP-Ford World Rally Team heads to the sealed surface roads of northern Spain next week intent on reproducing the same ...

BP-Ford aims high with Focus on Spanish asphalt

After a dominant victory earlier this month on the asphalt roads of Corsica, BP-Ford World Rally Team heads to the sealed surface roads of northern Spain next week intent on reproducing the same form. The team's Ford Focus RS World Rally Car was a class above its rivals on the Rallye de France and the Rally Catalunya (28 - 31 October) is another all-asphalt event which is likely to suit the car.

Drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park and team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot dominated the island event, winning 10 of the 12 speed tests. Märtin and Duval were on course for a one-two finish until Duval's final day retirement. But Märtin's victory was just reward for the new-design Focus RS, which has long had the reputation as being the best asphalt car without delivering the win to back up that claim.

While this 15th, and penultimate round, of the FIA World Rally Championship, offers the same surface as Corsica, the nature of the speed tests is quite different. In contrast to predominantly narrow and winding roads, the special stages in the mountains behind the Costa Brava, north of Barcelona, are generally wider and faster.

However, BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson is confident the Focus RS will be equally as competitive in Spain. "Our best performance in Corsica came on a stage which was faster than most of the tests there. The handling of the car is superb at high speed and I think the quicker roads in Spain will suit the car just as well as those in Corsica," he said.

Drivers must adopt a very different style behind the wheel. In contrast to Corsica, where the twisty roads hug the craggy mountainside, the stages in Spain are more open. The quickest route round the corners is usually to reduce the severity of the bend by cutting across the inside as much as possible. Often more than half the car can be off the road as drivers search for the straightest, and therefore fastest, line.

This style requires ultimate accuracy in the preparation of pace notes during the recce to judge which corners can be cut safely, as well as a strong car to withstand the punishment as they drop off the asphalt onto the bumpy, loose surface on the inside.

Märtin, whose maiden asphalt victory in Corsica lifted him to third in the drivers' championship, has competed four times in Spain. Third last year in a Castrol-branded Focus RS was his best result. "The car is competitive everywhere but our result in Corsica confirmed to me that the Focus RS is the fastest rally car on asphalt," said the 28-year-old Estonian. "We have to ensure we can reach the same level in Spain. There are not so many differences between the two events, although Rally Catalunya is smoother and faster and a driver can take a straighter line through the corners. It's more straight forward than Corsica, although that doesn't mean it isn't difficult. The stages are nice and flowing and it's my favourite asphalt rally."

Märtin's confidence has been boosted by the return of safety crews, who drive the stages ahead of the competitors to provide accurate data on road and weather conditions. "Henrik Lundgaard did a superb job in Corsica. He will not be available in Spain but our safety crew will again be important. Because drivers cut the corners so often, stones and gravel are dragged onto the roads during the first pass. Accurate information about the slippery sections is vital from a safety aspect," he added.

Twenty-three-year-old Duval finished fourth in Spain last year, although the Belgian admits he is not a big fan of the event. "The Spanish roads are always slippery and wide and sometimes it is like driving on a race circuit," he said. "I don't like the stages so much because I prefer more difficult roads that are twisty and narrow. It's my least favourite asphalt event. I prefer Corsica, Monte Carlo and Germany. But after our pace in Corsica, I think it's possible to finish on the podium and that would be a good result for me.

"Last year the amount of gravel dragged onto on the stages during the first run was terrible. It made conditions difficult for the second pass and I'm sure it will be the same this year. But the situation is even more difficult because some stages are used in one direction one day, and then we drive them the opposite way later in the rally. Obviously the driving line in one direction is different to the opposite way, and so we find gravel in some fairly unusual places. We have to be careful not to make any mistakes," he added.

Team News

* Duval will not incur a time penalty despite his engine failure in Corsica requiring a new unit to be fitted for this event. Under the experimental regulations agreed by manufacturers, the penalty may only be applied to cars that finished in Corsica, but then had their engine seal broken to replace parts or the entire unit ahead of the Rally Catalunya.

* Both Märtin and Duval will test a Focus RS ahead of the recce. They will drive for half a day each on Monday on roads in northern Spain, close to the French border, to concentrate on tyre testing.

* Märtin's regular safety crew driver Henrik Lundgaard will be unavailable in Spain. He will be replaced by Simon Davidson, who used to do the same job with former world champion Richard Burns.

* The team has nominated Michelin's N and TA tyres for the event. The N patterned rubber is suitable for dry or humid conditions and engineers can cut grooves into the rubber to match the tyres as closely as possible to the conditions at the time. The TA 'intermediate' tyre is used in wet weather and additional cuts can be added to the rubber to clear the water if heavy rain soaks the asphalt. Both patterns will be available in varying compounds and construction.

Rally Route

All three days are again based around a single service park 80km north-west of the daily start and finish location in the holiday resort of Lloret de Mar. Ten different special stages will each be used twice, and the now familiar format of two loops of tests, split by a service in the middle, comprises each day. However, only seven stretches of road will be used as many sections are used in both directions on different days. The event begins with a ceremonial start in Lloret de Mar on Thursday evening. Drivers face 20 stages in total, covering 384.08km of competition in a total route of 1721.19km. The second leg is the longest, comprising eight stages which cover 162.88km. The final day includes two passes over the 35.18km Viladrau test, the longest of the event. It includes the famous and much-photographed hairpin beneath the motorway bridge, one of the most popular viewing points of the entire season.


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Series WRC