Stobart set to sparkle on the Emerald Isle The Stobart VK M-Sport Ford rally team are set to be a part of history as round 15 of the FIA World Rally Championship heads to Ireland for the first ever time next week. This tarmac event marks the ...
Stobart set to sparkle on the Emerald Isle
The Stobart VK M-Sport Ford rally team are set to be a part of history as round 15 of the FIA World Rally Championship heads to Ireland for the first ever time next week. This tarmac event marks the penultimate round of the 2007 WRC series as championship standings begin to heat-up over the closing sector.
While this is a new WRC event for everyone it is rather familiar turf for the British-based Stobart team, in particular for Matthew Wilson/Michael Orr and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila. They have both previously competed on Irish tarmac events and Wilson/Orr were the dominant overall winners of the inaugural Rally Ireland in 2005.
Henning Solberg, however, will be tackling the roads for the first time in his career, something he has had to deal with on the previous three WRC events but included a superb third placed finish on the most recent round in Japan. Solberg will also be without regular co-driver Cato Menkerud as he and wife Charlotte are awaiting the imminent birth of their child. Swedish co-driver Goran Bergsten has been chosen as his replacement for the weekend.
Rally Ireland is a unique event running through two different countries, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This WRC cross-border rallying initiative has only ever been seen before on Rally Monte-Carlo and Rally Sanremo. Bringing the two countries together is set to bring in an enormous amount of fans with both nations absolutely fanatical about the sport.
Twenty stages will make up the 342 kilometres of competitive distance beginning with another logistical test for rally organisers as the competitors head some 210 kilometres east of Rally HQ in Sligo, for the official start in Stormont, Belfast. While competition roads are all-asphalt, their notoriously bumpy and slippery surface is like nothing seen on the WRC and with the added unpredictability of the countries' weather conditions, this is shaping up to be another nail-biter.
This year the Ford Focus RS WRC has dominated two national Irish Rally Championships and could be the key for all three Stobart crews. Solberg will again be in foreign territory but this time will be competing on a level playing field as everyone tackles the event for the first time. While the Norwegian has competed in over 50 WRC events he is yet to score a point on asphalt and will be looking to rectify this in Ireland.
For young Finnish driver Latvala, the tricky surface will not be completely new to him after a successful year in 2003 competing in the British Rally Championship in a Focus RS. That year the Finn had several promising results and ran as high as second on the Ulster Rally until an overshoot on the final stage pushed him back to fourth by rally's end. This experience of the difficult Irish surface will be a positive draw card for Latvala who has shown impressive form of late on both tarmac and gravel surfaces.
Prior to his WRC career Wilson learnt the ropes driving in the 2004 British Rally Championship where he achieved a 100 percent finish rate. Then in 2005, just two months after recovering from a major accident, the then 18-year-old won the inaugural Rally Ireland, a pilot event for the WRC, by a staggering five minutes. This was his first win outside of the UK. The 20-year-old will be one of the few competitors with experience of the bumpy Irish roads, as he goes in search of his first ever drivers' point on tarmac.
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team Driver Henning Solberg said:
"Again I really don't know what to expect of this rally as it is another new one for me. I have been told it can be a very difficult rally, very narrow, twisty and fast and if the weather is bad it can be extremely slippery. It is going to be a hard event but we have had some experience of tarmac this year which will help. I will be looking to just get in the points here. We have been so close to the points on all the tarmac rallies this year so I will try my best for one in Ireland. The podium in Japan was another great moment and one in Ireland would be amazing but I don't want to make mistakes as this rally could be in the WRC again so it will be important to complete the event for experience, hopefully inside the top-eight."
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team Driver Jari-Matti Latvala said:
"This is going to be an interesting rally but for me I am feeling quite confident. In 2003 we had a Focus run by M-Sport to compete on the British championship and it was a really good year of experience. In this year we had some good results and it gave me the feeling for these bumpy, dirty, tarmac roads. We have not done these stages before but we have rallied on roads close by and have an idea of the difficult surface which will help a lot. The only concern for me is the weather. If it rains, conditions can become very difficult and really slippery. We have had a good feeling with the car lately and had a great result on the last tarmac event in Corsica. I have enjoyed the rallies this year that have been new to everyone and I hear there will be lots of world rally cars and spectators in Ireland. I just hope it's going to stay dry for the rally."
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team Driver Matthew Wilson said:
"I'm really looking forward to this event but I also know how tricky it can be. There are a lot of unknowns here for everybody which is going to make things very interesting throughout the pack. When we won here in 2005 it was quite surprising because it was a mixed-surface event and we thought we would have the advantage on gravel and be behind on tarmac but after the opening, tarmac day we were over a minute ahead against some very quick Irish competitors. A couple of the stages are in the same area so for me it will help to have this prior knowledge of the roads and especially of the tricky surface. These final two events are essentially both home rallies for me and I can't wait to have another go at Irish roads before heading back for the final round in Wales."
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team Principal Malcolm Wilson said:
"It will be difficult to emulate the performance by the Stobart team in Japan a few weeks ago with this being both a new and tarmac event. I do think however, with the nature of Ireland, to expect the unexpected. The uniqueness of Irish tarmac will throw in challenges that are not normally seen on traditional asphalt events. Both Matthew and Jari have experience of this surface and Matthew won the first Rally Ireland in a Focus when it was run as a candidate event in 2005; which will help his confidence here. It's fantastic that the Stobart team is so close to Subaru in the Manufacturers' Championship and hopefully they can leave Ireland still in a position to challenge for third in the standings. If this can be achieved it will look promising for Rally GB; a place where all three guys will be strong."