Rally New Zealand: Ford preview

Championship leader Ford debuts revised Focus in NZ Ford BP Rallye Sport will debut the 2004 version of the Focus RS World Rally Car in New Zealand next week fresh from last month's magnificent 1-2 finish in Mexico. The car is an evolution ...

Championship leader Ford debuts revised Focus in NZ

Ford BP Rallye Sport will debut the 2004 version of the Focus RS World Rally Car in New Zealand next week fresh from last month's magnificent 1-2 finish in Mexico. The car is an evolution version of the all-new Focus RS WRC which made its first appearance on the Rally New Zealand exactly 12 months ago. It successfully completed the FIA's approval procedure at the end of last month in readiness for its maiden competition outing on the smooth and fast gravel roads of New Zealand's North Island.

Technical director Christian Loriaux and his engineering team at M-Sport have made several small, but important, improvements to the 2003 car. They have redesigned the front bumper to improve engine cooling, restyled the rear bumper and shaved 10kg from the weight of the body shell by using lighter front and rear wings. Cosworth Racing has also introduced weight savings to the Duratec R engine, as well as modifying the turbo and exhaust manifold and improving the con rod and piston assembly.

Victory in Mexico, round three of the FIA World Rally Championship, for Markko Märtin and Michael Park and second place for team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot lifted Ford into a 10 point lead in the manufacturers' standings. Märtin is also tied for the lead in the drivers' championship going into the Auckland-based Rally New Zealand (15 -18 April).

The roads in New Zealand are widely regarded as the best in the championship. As smooth as a billiard table and gently winding through the lush, green North Island countryside, they pose fewer mechanical demands than most gravel rallies and invite drivers to attack them.

An additional challenge to all teams will be the introduction of more new regulations. The rally will be the first, and may be the only, event of the season to embrace the Mille Pistes format. Instead of drivers making two practice passes over the speed tests before the rally start to prepare their pace notes, they will only make one. The second practice run will be held early in the morning before the start of each leg, immediately ahead of the special stages themselves.

It is a format which will make the days much longer, as well as impacting on driver and co-driver in other areas. "It will make the first pass vitally important," said Park. "That's the only one after which we will have the time to thoroughly examine our pace notes and view the in-car video in our rooms to see if we need to make alterations. After the second pass there will be no opportunity for reflection. The tight schedule means I will be making a final check of the notes and tidying them up in the rally car itself and that's not ideal. That's the negative side. The positive side is that, with gravel crews now banned, it will help with tyre selection as we'll have a better idea of road conditions from our second practice run."

Twenty-eight-year-old Märtin enjoys the event, despite not having finished on either of his two starts. "The roads are fantastic to drive on and I agree with those people who say they're among the best of the year. Victory in Mexico was a superb result and we need to follow that up by going to New Zealand and winning there as well. There's no reason why we can't do that. The 04 Focus has felt good in tests and I'm looking forward to getting the feel of it on a rally. There are no big changes, it's just a small evolution of the 03 car but it keeps us going forward and I know this is also a winning car," he said.

"A 'penalty' of winning in Mexico means that we start the first leg in New Zealand second in the running order. If the weather is dry, that's not the best place to be because there will be plenty of loose gravel on the road surface. It makes quite a difference if it's dry and the further down the order the better, although it's less noticeable after six or seven cars as most of the gravel has been swept clear. If the roads are wet it won't be a problem, so we just have to wait and see," he added.

Two podium finishes from the first three events propelled 23-year-old Duval into fourth place in the drivers' standings. The Belgian has little experience of the rally, last year's ninth place his only previous start. "I enjoy the rally but I need to gain more experience there," he said. "I completed the recce two years ago to learn about the roads but last year was the first time I started the rally. We had a few problems on the opening day so it was difficult to check my pace notes. My final position this year isn't so important, but gaining experience is. So I won't take big risks and will concentrate on finishing and I think a result in the points would be a good outcome.

"For me it's one of the three most difficult rallies in the championship, along with Australia and Finland. The roads are fast and it's easy to lose time by not finding the right rhythm. I'm making progress all the time, both in my driving and in perfecting my pace notes, and two podium finishes from the first three rounds is a nice start to the season.

Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson looks forward to the event with confidence. "Last year Markko held second for much of the first two days and won a string of speed tests so we know the Focus RS goes well on the New Zealand roads. Our win in Mexico has given everyone a massive boost, both the on-event team and those working so hard behind the scenes at Dovenby Hall. Now we must maintain the hard work to keep the pressure on our rivals in New Zealand," he said.

Team News

* Markko Märtin and François Duval completed a four-day test on gravel roads near Ponte de Lima in northern Portugal last month with the new car. The team concentrated on general research and development work as well as specific work in advance of July's Rally Argentina. Martin tackled the opening three days, covering almost 450km before Duval took over for the last day. The Belgian completed another 140km.

* Both Ford BP drivers will be joined by Ford's Australian V8 Supercar driver Marcos Ambrose and former New Zealand V8 Touring Car Champion Mark Pedersen for a passenger ride event for New Zealand media at the Pukekohe race circuit near Auckland before the rally.

* HRH The Princess Royal made a brief visit to the team's Dovenby Hall headquarters on Monday to begin a day's tour of the region. She arrived by helicopter at Dovenby in mid-morning before departing to fulfill her schedule.

Rally Route

Organisers have stayed faithful to last year's format with two days based at the Paparoa service park in the Northland region, almost 150km north of Auckland, and a final day south of the city. However, they have scrapped the final leg stages around Te Akau and in Maramarua Forest in favour of a return to the classic tests south of Raglan, last used in 2002. The action begins on Thursday evening with two runs at the floodlit Manukau super special stage on the edge of Auckland. The first full day covers roads used in the opposite direction to last year, ending with two more tests at Manukau, and is the longest leg of the event. The second leg, in the same area, uses identical roads to 2003 before the shorter final day, which includes two passes over the classic Whaanga Coast, rated by many as the best stage in the entire championship. Drivers face 395.50km of competition over 23 stages in a route of 1398.36km.


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Series WRC
Teams M-Sport