Focus trio aims to keep Ford on crest of a wave The Ford Martini team face their longest journey of the year as the Rally New Zealand (20 - 23 September) opens a gruelling end of season rush which sees the final five rounds of the FIA World...
Focus trio aims to keep Ford on crest of a wave
The Ford Martini team face their longest journey of the year as the Rally New Zealand (20 - 23 September) opens a gruelling end of season rush which sees the final five rounds of the FIA World Rally Championship squeezed into just 10 weeks. The Ford squad goes to Auckland, known as the City of Sails and current tenant of yachting's Americas Cup, on the crest of a wave after regaining a share of the championship lead in Finland last month.
The Rally New Zealand is a drivers' delight. Smooth, gravel roads wind their way through verdant green countryside, place few mechanical demands on cars and encourage attacking driving. Virtually all the leading competitors rate the New Zealand roads as the best in the championship and the Ford trio of Colin McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist, Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya and French pair François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup are no exceptions.
McRae and Sainz will steer their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars into the four-day event well aware of what it takes to win there. Between them they have won seven times during the past 11 years with Sainz victorious in 1990, '91, '92 and '98 and McRae on the top step of the podium in 1993, '94 and '95.
The Focus' major strength this season has been on gravel and McRae, second in the drivers' series and just six points behind leader Tommi Mäkinen, recognises the importance of a strong result in New Zealand.
"The final three gravel rallies, in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, are going to be crucial to the championship chances of both myself and Ford," said the 33-year-old Scot. "It's important that we score well on all three rallies to give ourselves a cushion for the two asphalt rallies in Sanremo and Corsica.
"I enjoy this rally because the stages are good to drive. There are no rough sections and you can push 100 per cent all the time, although if it's dry there can be loose gravel on the surface so it's important to keep the car in the clean lines. My first world rally win was in New Zealand so I have good memories," he added.
Sainz, currently third in the drivers' series, has his sights set high. "We must make a podium finish our target and I think that's a reasonable aim," said the 39-year-old Madrid-based driver. "There are only five rounds remaining in the championship and both the drivers' and manufacturers' championships are quite close so it's important we score well here. A zero score for anyone with a chance of the title would be a big disappointment.
"The roads in New Zealand are the best gravel roads in the whole championship. My only concern is that if conditions are dry it will be a handicap to be the first few cars because of the loose gravel on the road," added Sainz.
The third officially entered Focus RS will be driven by François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup, whose best result in New Zealand was second in 1993 during his first spell with the Ford team.
"I've only competed there three times so I don't have huge experience but for me it is the best rally in the championship," said 39-year-old Delecour. "I enjoy the stages so much. The roads are very natural and so smooth that you just try to drive at maximum speed all the time which is what the sport should be about. In 2000, when I drove for Peugeot, I led the rally until the car's gearbox broke. Maybe this year I can enjoy better luck."
Challenge of the Rally New Zealand
Revisions to this year's rally calendar mean the event is held more than two months later this year, moving from the middle of the southern hemisphere winter to early spring. Milder weather should be one result and the possibility of drier conditions another, although recent heavy rain suggests the mud and slime associated with the rally during its traditional July date will still be evident.
Whether wet or dry, it is likely the mysterious art of hand-cutting tyres will be much in evidence in the Ford Martini service area. If conditions are dry, drivers will request that additional cuts be made on the team's patterned Pirelli tyres to help disperse small stones which can lie on the road surface and prove a hindrance to the first cars through the stages.
If the weather is very wet, then the drivers will again want extra cuts - this time to remove the mud and water and enable the rubber to cut through to the hard surface below and provide maximum grip.
Either option means plenty of hard work for Ford Martini's tyre engineers George Black and Clive Taylor as to re-cut a set of five tyres for a rally car can take up to 30 minutes. Only if conditions are damp will Black and Taylor be happy. Then the drivers are likely to settle for the tyres with their base patterns and no extra cuts will be required!
The rally is virtually unchanged from last year, beginning with a ceremonial start in Auckland on Thursday evening. The event proper begins the next morning with the opening leg based around Raglan, 150km to the south. The day's action ends with two super special stages at Manukau City, on the edge of Auckland, where two cars at a time will race around a purpose built track. The second leg takes competitors north for the longest day of the rally, drivers facing more than 176km of competition based around Ruawai. The toughest test will be the opening stage, the massive 59km Parahi / Ararua. First used in this form last year, it is the longest special stage in world rallying since rallies were drastically shortened in 1986. The last day offers two tests north of Raglan before a final rush of six stages, without service, in Maramarua Forest, south-east of Auckland. Drivers face 24 stages in all, covering 383.65km in a route of 1691km.