Ford BP seeks second clean sweep with Focus RS WRC Ford BP Rallye Sport will start the final round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Great Britain next week intent on creating a record unmatched in the modern era of the sport. A top eight...
Ford BP seeks second clean sweep with Focus RS WRC
Ford BP Rallye Sport will start the final round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Great Britain next week intent on creating a record unmatched in the modern era of the sport. A top eight finish for the Focus RS World Rally Car on the Rally GB (7 - 9 November) would complete a second consecutive season in which the team has scored points on every round - a remarkable blend of speed and reliability dating back 28 rallies to the opening round of the 2002 campaign in Monte Carlo.
Official drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park, team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot and the M-Sport-run pairing of Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen have all contributed to the Ford tally in 2003. Just the fast, gravel forest roads in South Wales stand between the team and a second clean sweep, a feat unmatched since the early 1990s when the championship was less competitive with fewer rounds and smaller manufacturer participation.
"To complete a 14-round season in 2002 by scoring points on every rally was remarkable," said Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson. "To repeat the feat in 2003, when the championship is more competitive than at any time in its history, would be an incredible achievement, a testament to the speed and reliability of the Focus RS WRC and a fitting reward for everyone involved in the development of the 2003 car."
Next season the Rally GB will move away from its traditional November date into September and so this year's event will be the last that could be affected by Britain's notoriously unpredictable weather. When conditions are gloomy high in the forest speed tests, fog can be a hazard, particularly early in the morning. But given clear conditions, the special stages are fast, with tree-lined sections contrasting with vast open areas where foresty work has removed the trees.
Märtin enjoys the flowing tests, on which he finished a close second last year. "The roads are quite fast and flowing, the type of stages that I enjoy, and I will be going flat out to try to end the year with a win," said the 27-year-old Estonian. "If I did win, then it could mess up several people's world title hopes. But that's not my worry. My target is to win and to take the 10 points and I really think the best the rest can expect is eight points.
"Fog is the one thing I want to avoid. It's such a fast rally that if you can't see anything in the fog, it's difficult to drive flat out. The weather plays such an important part on this rally. If it's dry then that's no problem. But if it's wet the roads can cut up and become quite rough on the second pass. Last year the organisers chose the roads carefully and the rally itself was dry so it wasn't a concern," he added.
Duval has started the Rally GB twice but retired early on the opening leg on both occasions. "My experience of the stages isn't good but from what I have seen, I like the roads," said the 22-year-old Belgian. "They're fast, but not too fast, and seem inviting to drive hard. Conditions on the event are usually difficult with rain, fog and ice and even snow possible but that's what I'm used to when I go quad biking! I think the weather is the hardest part of the rally because conditions can change so quickly. One section can be clear and then you drive round a corner and hit thick fog.
"After three good results on asphalt my confidence is high. My progression on asphalt has been good, maybe better than on gravel events. I've had to drive more cautiously on gravel because finishing was the all-important thing for my experience. Maybe I can push a little harder in Britain," he added.
Rally GB is one of only three rallies in this season's calendar that Hirvonen has tackled before, although the 22-year-old Finn did not reach the finish in 2002. "The roads are great to drive on but difficult in places," he said. "Last year it wasn't raining at all during the event but the stages were still slippery. The grip can be unpredictable in places, especially in the braking areas, and that makes things quite tricky. The weather in Britain is often not good at this time of the year with fog a possibility. That doesn't worry me so much because it's quite similar to driving in the dark in Finland when it's snowing. I don't see it as a big problem and if it's the same for everyone, then we all have to overcome it.
"It's the last rally of the year and I would like to go flat out and see what happens. I've now completed a whole year in the championship and I've learned so much about everything. Every rally brings its own specific difficulties and I can't really say there is one single thing I've learned that is more important than anything else. It's just everything. It's been an incredible year," he added.
Jarri-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila return to the Rally GB, scene of Latvala's WRC debut last year at only 17-years-old, full of confidence after victory on the final round of the British Championship earlier this month. They will drive an M-Sport run 2001-specification Focus RS. "It's good to go to my final WRC event this year with some knowledge of what to expect," said Latvala. " We've had a great year in the British and World Championships in the car and I've learned a lot. I have a lot of confidence in the ability of the Focus RS and more in mine. In a lot of ways it's frustrating to get to the end of the season and have everything fall into place. We won't rush straight into the rally and try to set fast times, we will take our time to settle into the event."
* Märtin's pre-rally test plans were changed to allow him to return home to Estonia earlier this week for treatment following his accident on the Rallye de France earlier this month. His two-day test in north-west England on Wednesday and Thursday was reduced to a one-day session tomorrow (Saturday). Duval also spent one day testing the Focus RS today (Friday).
* The Rally GB will use two specially prepared Focus cars, decaled in a Ford Team RS and BP Ultimate livery, as the 0 and 00 safety course cars which run ahead of the competitors during the event. Both will be fuelled with BP Ultimate diesel, an advanced fuel which offers reduced CO2 emissions and improved performance.
* Keen football fans Hirvonen, Lehtinen and Park will be joined by team director Malcolm Wilson as guests of Ford to watch the UEFA Champions League game between Manchester United and Glasgow Rangers at Old Trafford on Tuesday evening. The three drivers will make the 3hr 30min drive north to Manchester immediately after Tuesday's recce ends before returning to Cardiff after the game. Ford is an official partner of the UEFA Champions League.
Once again the rally is based entirely in the forests of South Wales. The itinerary shows few differences from 2002 with only minor changes to the stage routes. Just the Rhondda stage, used twice on Sunday, was not used last year, but most drivers have previous experience of it from 2001. The action begins with a super special stage in the heart of Cardiff on Thursday night, a test that is repeated at the end of Friday and Saturday's legs. The opening leg, the longest of the rally, continues on Friday with two tests to the north-west before entering the Vale of Neath mountains, in which the bulk of the rally's competitive distance is based. Saturday takes competitors to the northernmost part of the route, close to military land around the Brecon Beacons, before returning to the Vale of Neath while the final day is based entirely in the Vale. Competitors face 18 stages covering 376.81km in a route of 1574.52km.