Rally Finland: Ford preview

BP-Ford focuses on flying Finns for Rally Finland BP-Ford World Rally Team plans to maximise local experience when it lines up for arguably the most specialised event in the FIA World Rally Championship in Finland next week. The team has ...

BP-Ford focuses on flying Finns for Rally Finland

BP-Ford World Rally Team plans to maximise local experience when it lines up for arguably the most specialised event in the FIA World Rally Championship in Finland next week. The team has recruited Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen to join fellow countrymen Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen behind the wheel of Focus RS World Rally Cars as Ford's nominated drivers for the Rally Finland (4 - 7 August).

This 10th round of the series is based on dauntingly fast, roller-coaster gravel speed tests that are unique to Finland. Drivers who have grown up on these type of roads have a clear advantage over 'outsiders', who require several years' experience before they can hope to become competitive. It is such a big benefit that only three non-Nordic drivers have ever won in the 54-year history of the event, and Finns have triumphed on 47 occasions.

BP-Ford's regular second pairing, Roman Kresta and Jan Mozný, have never competed in Finland before. The Czechs will drive a BP Ultimate-branded 2003-specification car this year as they concentrate on learning the characteristics of the speed tests, leaving Gardemeister and Hirvonen to fight for team points to consolidate Ford's third place in the manufacturers' standings.

Finland is viewed as rallying's spiritual home. The wide, hard roads are as smooth as a billiard table and guarantee breathtaking speeds. Last year's rally was won at an incredible average of 122.62kph. Spectacular jumps and stunning scenery among the lakes and forests act as a magnet to fans and huge crowds provide a great atmosphere.

Technically, it is an incredibly difficult rally. Precision driving and bravery are more important here than anywhere else. The awesome switchback jumps frequently hide bends just over the crest so the accuracy and delivery of pace notes must be extremely precise.

This will be the 10th Rally Finland for 30-year-old Gardemeister, for whom a top three result in his Castrol-branded Focus RS would mean much. "Monte Carlo and Finland are the two rallies where a top result is special," he said. "And, being a Finn, it would mean a lot to me to finish on the podium. It will be a difficult event because there are so many fast drivers. But it will be exciting to drive on my own roads, in front of my own fans, with the prospect of obtaining a good finish.

"I know most of the stages quite well and there are only a few roads that I'm not so familiar with. I'm used to the Finnish roads so they don't seem so difficult to me. The most important aspect is not to lose momentum. They are so fast that lifting off the throttle, even briefly, can cost a lot of time. The Focus finished second here last year. It has not changed so much since then so it should still be well-suited to this event," he added.

Hirvonen drove a Focus RS with the official Ford team in the 2003 championship. He has returned to the driving seat of the car again this season, piloting a privately-entered Focus RS to fifth on the Acropolis Rally of Greece last month after leading during the opening leg. Hirvonen, who celebrates his 25th birthday on Sunday, lives in the rally base of Jyvaskyla and is keen to make the most of his Ford nomination.

"It means a great deal to me that I have factory support again for my home rally," he said. "I know everyone in the team, I work well with them all and I'm so happy to be back. I've never driven the current specification Focus RS and there are many things that will be different compared to the 2003 car that I've been driving. But I have a day's testing on Sunday and I think that will be enough to learn. I know already that the Focus suits my driving style and my target is to score points for Ford and to be as close as I can to Toni at the top of the leaderboard. If I'm close to him, then I can be in the top five.

"There are two things that have to be absolutely right for this rally. It's important to be 100 per cent sure of how the car handles and a driver has to get the correct driving line over the crests. The stages are so fast that good confidence is vital and that comes with a car that handles well. And before taking off over a jump, a driver needs to know where he is going to land. Once you're in the air, it's too late to change your mind! There is no room for mistakes," he added.

Kresta's only experience of the Finnish roads came in 2002 when he tackled the recce. "It's a very, very special event," he said. "It's impossible to develop a full idea of the nature of the roads until you drive them at a competitive speed. But from that recce, I could see just how hard they are to master. They're incredibly fast and flowing and they look fantastic to drive. But driving quickly and driving competitively are different, and I understand why people say that it takes several visits to this rally before a driver can become competitive. It's important for me to drive quickly, but cautiously, so that I can finish and gain as much experience as possible.

Team News

* Two privately-entered Focus RS cars will start. Norway's Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud will join Antony Warmbold and Michael Orr in latest specification cars. Entries for Juuso Pykalisto and Mark Higgins have been withdrawn. The Finn is concentrating his efforts and budget on the national championship, which he currently leads, while Higgins' car could not be repaired in time after after rolling on the Acropolis Rally of Greece.

* The team has a four-day test, starting today, to help drivers finalise their preferred car set-up. Gardemeister will spend the first two days on roads near his home town of Kouvola. Hirvonen will test on Sunday on roads near Jyvaskyla with Solberg, Warmbold and Kresta all climbing behind the wheel on Monday.

* BP-Ford has nominated Michelin's Z pattern tyres for the event, which are unbeaten since their launch in New Zealand in April. Designed for a clear and hard surface, the Z tyre has a relatively compact tread pattern to ensure the maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the road for the best possible grip and traction. In the unlikely situation of heavy rain, the team can cut the Z tyre to a ZA pattern. It is a more open tread, designed to penetrate the loose surface in search of firmer ground deeper down.

Rally Route

The rally voted the best in the 2004 championship for the third season shows few changes this year. One of those is that the action will again begin on Thursday evening at the short super special stage at Killeri trotting track. The next day comprises tests close to the rally base in Jyvaskyla and includes one stage south-west of the town which is predominantly new. The second leg can be regarded as the classic day of the world championship season. Run over wide, flowing roads close to Jamsa, it covers 144.76km of competition and includes some of rallying's greatest stages. It includes two passes over the awesome Ouninpohja, a roller-coaster stretch of road full of blind crests and huge jumps and viewed by many as rallying's ultimate test of skill. This year it will be split into two tests for safety reasons. Sunday's final leg comprises two loops of two stages west of Jyvaskyla. Drivers face 21 stages comprising 355.59km in a route of 1506.78km.


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Series WRC
Drivers Mark Higgins , Juuso Pykalisto , Toni Gardemeister , Roman Kresta , Jarmo Lehtinen , Cato Menkerud , Michael Orr , Jan Mozny , Antony Warmbold