WRC

Rally Japan: Ford preview

BP-Ford hopes to shine in Land of the Rising Sun BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park and team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot will hope that history repeats itself when the Rally Japan (2 - 5 September)...

BP-Ford hopes to shine in Land of the Rising Sun

BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park and team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot will hope that history repeats itself when the Rally Japan (2 - 5 September) makes its debut in the FIA World Rally Championship next week. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars finished first and second in March on the Rally Mexico's introduction to the series and a repeat result in the Land of the Rising Sun would provide a perfect boost to the team's title challenge.

BP-Ford strengthened its hold on second in the manufacturers' championship on the previous round in Germany earlier this month while Märtin climbed to second in the drivers' standings. With just six rounds of the 16-rally series remaining, it is important that the team reproduces the kind of performance that netted second and fourth on the German asphalt.

This all-gravel 11th round of the championship, which has been fast-tracked into the series after just two years as a round of the Asia-Pacific Championship, is a real step into the unknown. None of the BP-Ford drivers have even visited Japan previously, so there will be much to learn about the event when the two-day practice period gets under way on Wednesday. The rally is based in Obihiro, 900km north of Tokyo, on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido. None of the leading drivers have tackled the event before which ensures that, for once, previous experience will not be a factor.

BP-Ford's co-ordination manager John Millington attended the 2003 event to learn as much about the rally as possible. He describes the area as 'very rural'. "Obihiro itself is similar to America with the city divided into blocks but outside the city it is very rural. The countryside and houses are quite similar to Scandinavia, even to the extent of tall snow poles standing by the side of the roads," he said.

"Much of legs one and two is similar to the roads in the Welsh forests that are used on the Rally GB. They are quite wide and flowing and inviting for the drivers. Most of leg three and parts of the opening two legs are based in natural forest but on man-made roads which don't really follow the contours of the hillsides. They are narrow with a lot of canopy cover which means the tracks tend to stay damp under the trees, even if it is dry. There aren't many junctions and these roads will be a unique challenge to drivers. September is the wettest month of the year in this part of Japan so heavy rain is likely," added Millington.

Märtin heads a group of five drivers covered by just eight points. "In championship terms the battle for second place is currently very tight," said the 28-year-old Estonian. "But from my point of view I want to be fighting for first not second place so I have to start closing the gap on leader Sebastien Loeb. The championship is now at the point where each event must be considered on its own merits. This rally and the next event in Great Britain are both gravel rallies and if I am to have any chance of winning the title I need to close in on Sebastien on these two rallies."

"I cannot really say anything about Rally Japan because I know little. I enjoy tackling new rallies and if we come back from Japan with the same kind of result that we achieved in Mexico then I will be delighted. As with any new event it will be important to ensure the pace notes are accurate. With just two practice runs through the stages, there will be little opportunity to correct mistakes and this is one area on which we must work hard during the recce," he added.

Duval's confidence is high after five consecutive points finishes. The 23-year-old Belgian also has an excellent record on new rallies, finishing third on the Rally of Turkey's debut in 2003 and second on the Rally Mexico this season.

"New rallies coming into the championship, like Japan, give me an advantage," said Duval. "On most events I have less experience and less knowledge of the stages than the other drivers. But all the top drivers will start this rally with no previous competitive experience there and that makes it more equal. I think it's possible for me to finish inside the top five. But it's important for me to make sure I drive all the stages and learn them for the future. So if I'm lying in fifth or sixth then I would not risk everything to try to climb to third or fourth.

"I don't know what the conditions will be like but I believe that some of the roads are narrow. The stages are not too long which is good for me. I will try to settle into a steady rhythm and see what happens. Because there are fewer manufacturer entries than on previous events, it will only take two or three retirements to ensure a good points finish and that's my aim," he added.

Team News

* Rally Japan will mark the 100th world rally start for Stéphane Prévot. The 35-year-old Belgian's first world event was the 1989 RAC Rally in Great Britain when he partnered fellow countryman George Simons. He has spent much of his career alongside Bruno Thiry, the two helping General Motors to win the Two-Litre Manufacturers' world title in 1993. He joined forces with François Duval in early 2003.

* Tyre engineer George Black joined co-ordination manager John Millington in attending the rally last year on a fact-finding visit, in expectation of it being introduced into the championship this year. The information he gained played a vital part in the team's tyre nominations for this year's rally.

Rally Route

The rally is based in the city of Obihiro, in the Tokachi region of Hokkaido, with a central service park at Kita Aikoku a few kilometres to the south. However, all the speed tests, except for the Satsunai super special stage, are located north of Obihiro. After a city centre ceremonial start on Thursday evening, Friday's opening leg is the longest of the event. It comprises two identical anti-clockwise loops north of the town of Rikubetsu, 100km from Obihiro. The second leg follows an identical format with two clockwise loops over roads slightly further south. Both legs end with the Satsunai super special stage on the edge of Obihiro. The final day, the shortest of the rally, comprises two identical loops north-west of Obihiro, split by a third and final pass over the Satsunai test. Drivers face 387.50km of competition over 27 stages in a total route of 1677.43km.

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