Rally Catalunya: Ford preview

Ford BP Rallye Sport has little time to reflect on its podium finish on the Rallye de France - Tour de Corse on Sunday as for the first time in the history of the FIA World Rally Championship, teams face rallies on consecutive weekends. Just four...

Ford BP Rallye Sport has little time to reflect on its podium finish on the Rallye de France - Tour de Corse on Sunday as for the first time in the history of the FIA World Rally Championship, teams face rallies on consecutive weekends. Just four days after the finish in Corsica, Ford BP drivers will be back behind the wheel of their Focus RS World Rally Cars for the start of Spain's Rally Catalunya, the last of a hectic mini-tour of the Mediterranean featuring three asphalt events in four weeks.

Both Markko Märtin and Michael Park and team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot led during the opening two days in Corsica as the Focus RS posted fastest times on the narrow and twisty roads which hugged the craggy mountainside. Third place for Duval and Prévot matched their career-best result in Turkey earlier in the season and equalled the new Focus RS' best result on asphalt, achieved on the Rallye Sanremo in Italy just two weeks ago.

However, this 13th and penultimate round of the championship will offer totally different speed tests to those in Italy and Corsica. In contrast to predominantly narrow and winding roads, the special stages in the mountains behind the Costa Brava north of Barcelona are wider and more open and consequently much faster.

The key to being competitive lies in adapting a driving style to the open bends. 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 fastest and straightest line. This requires accurate preparation of pace notes during the recce to judge which bends can be cut safely and also a strong car to withstand the punishment as cars drop off the asphalt onto the bumpy and loose surface on the inside.

This tactic also offers a huge advantage to the first cars to tackle the stages. While they have the benefit of clean, or cleaner in the case of repeated tests, asphalt, drivers behind face slippery roads where the cars ahead have cut corners and dragged dirt and gravel onto the driving line.

Märtin and Park, who crashed heavily on Sunday, have finished the Spanish event twice from their three starts. "It's smooth, open and fast and is my favourite asphalt event," said the 27-year-old Estonian. "It's less bumpy and twisty than the others and there is the room to choose your own line through the corners. The wider roads mean it is more like being on a race circuit.

"The problems come on the second run through the stages when there is dirt and gravel on the roads. It is even more difficult when the stages are run in the opposite direction. Gravel pulled onto the asphalt from the first run appears in the most unexpected places when driving the stages in the other direction and it's important to have accurate information from gravel crews as to just where the problems are," he added.

Both Märtin and Park are recovering well from Sunday's crash, although both feel stiff and sore. "It might be a little painful during the recce when we have long periods sat in the car. But the most important thing is to regain flexibility by the start of the rally and we'll be having physiotherapy over the next few days to make sure that happens," said Märtin.

Duval matched his career-best result with third place in Corsica but knows that the wide and sweeping roads in Spain will be a contrast to the twisty mountain stages on the island. "I prefer the narrow roads to the wider asphalt we'll find in Spain so we'll take extra care in writing our pace notes during the recce," said the 22-year-old Belgian. "I've competed on the rally twice before, but in a two-wheel drive Ford Puma, and there is such a vast difference in performance between the Junior World Championship car and the Focus RS that it's difficult to know what to expect. But I'm hoping for dry conditions. If it stays dry, I'm hoping for a top five finish. I know I will do better if it isn't wet."

"I'm writing new pace notes for every event and the more new stages on the rally, the better it is for me. It means the more experienced drivers, who have started the rally many times, don't have an advantage as they are also tackling the roads for the first time. On the older stages their extra knowledge will assist them. Our start position won't help as there will be plenty of dirt and gravel on the roads from the cars ahead cutting corners," added Duval.

Finland's Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will again drive a 2002-specification Focus RS run by M-Sport. The duo have little asphalt experience but 22-year-old Hirvonen excelled during the rain-soaked second leg in Corsica when he posted a string of top 10 stage times that saw him match the speed of four-time world champion Tommi Mäkinen and Richard Burns, leader of the 2003 championship for so many months.

"I really enjoyed driving in the wet," he said. "After our early retirement from the Rallye Sanremo earlier this month, I felt I was lacking experience on asphalt in the Focus RS. But now that we've finished in Corsica and driven almost 400km in competition, I feel very confident about our chances in Spain. To finish inside the top 10 was my target for the Rallye de France and it's hugely encouraging for me. My speed in the wet was better than in the dry and as I've never been to Spain before, I hope the rally is a wet one. But having said that, I need more experience on dry asphalt for the future so perhaps a bit of both would be good."

Team News

* Märtin will meet Spain's former world motorcycle champion Alex Crivillé at his gymnasium in Vic after the opening day's recce on Tuesday. The 1999 500cc title winner is a big rallying fan and will attend Thursday's shakedown as a guest of the Ford BP team.

* Hirvonen's car will be the same one which the Finn took to an impressive 10th place on the Rallye de France - Tour de Corse. His 2002-specification Focus RS left Corsica by boat on Sunday evening and will be rebuilt at the team workshop in Lloret de Mar prior to Thursday morning's shakedown.

* Sales in Europe of the Ford Focus road car passed the 2.5 million mark in September since its launch in October 1998.

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Series WRC
Teams M-Sport