Date change in GB brings new challenge to BP-Ford After many years as a winter finale to the FIA World Rally Championship, the Wales Rally GB (16 - 19 September) is reborn next week as an end-of-summer event. The fog, mud, snow and ice which...
Date change in GB brings new challenge to BP-Ford
After many years as a winter finale to the FIA World Rally Championship, the Wales Rally GB (16 - 19 September) is reborn next week as an end-of-summer event. The fog, mud, snow and ice which were so common during its mid-November date will be replaced by drier and faster conditions, and are likely to offer a totally new challenge to BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park and team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot.
In the past, unpredictable weather has made the event extremely hazardous. However, a two-week spell of fine weather in Britain has left the gravel forest roads in the mountains of south Wales in good condition. If it remains dry, drivers could find that this 12th round of the championship has changed from one of the trickiest in the 16-round series to one of the fastest.
While the BP-Ford drivers will be unused to the conditions, the British-based team's senior management has vast experience of year-round competition in the UK and will be able to offer plenty of advice. "Between us, we have competed on many rallies in Britain in vastly different conditions so we have good knowledge of how the forest roads react to changing weather. I think some people could be in for quite a surprise if it stays dry," explained team director Malcolm Wilson.
Apart from a city centre super special stage in Cardiff, all the speed tests are held on tough privately-owned forest tracks. Most of the roads are in regular use by lorries which transport logs out of the forest to timber yards and so large log piles can frequently be seen by the edge of the tracks.
Ford lies a strong second in the manufacturers' championship after consistently high points finishes with the Focus RS World Rally Car. Märtin lies third in the drivers' standings, in the midst of a four-man battle for second, and the Rally GB offers him a strong opportunity to reclaim that position. He has plenty of experience, having started the event six times, and it was here in 2002 that the 28-year-old Estonian established himself as a star of the future by finishing second after a tremendous battle with Petter Solberg.
"I think this year's event will be very, very fast," he said. "People say that it could be as quick as the Rally Finland, which is the fastest round of the year. I'm not sure about that because the roads in Wales are different to those there. They are harder and smoother in Finland and there are probably more tight bends in Wales but it will be a very fast rally, especially if the conditions are dry.
"High speeds make the stages really challenging and a driver needs to be committed for every single second in Wales. There is no opportunity for respite. Logs and rocks close to the edge of the road add additional difficulties but it's an event I've always enjoyed and I think there could be a big battle for victory next weekend. One thing I won't miss about Wales in November is the fog. I hate driving in fog and hopefully Wales in the middle of September will be fog-free," he added.
For co-driver Park, the rally is his home event. He lives only 90km from the rally base in Cardiff and says that adds an extra incentive to do well. "I'm the only driver in the team who lives in a country that hosts a WRC rally," he said. "It's always something special to compete on your home rally. You see flags waving and people cheering and it is then you realise how much a British win would mean to them. Realistically, a British driver is not going to win this year, but there are two home co-drivers who have a great chance and victory on my own rally would mean a lot to me."
Duval lies sixth in the drivers' championship. He has started the Rally GB three times before, twice in a Ford Puma Super 1600 and once in a Focus RS. His only finish was in the Focus RS in 2003 when the 23-year-old Belgian was fifth. He is a big supporter of the date change to mid-September.
"I think it's a good decision," he said. "If the conditions are dry, and less unpredictable, then I will be happy. But in that case the conditions will be completely different for everyone. We're all used to slippery roads, mud and fog and I think the tracks will feel very different this year.
"It's a nice rally to drive although the roads are quite technical and it's not an easy event. Last year I didn't drive well so I hope to do better this time. The rally has a strong entry but I think a top five result is possible. The BP-Ford team has good experience of this rally and that should help me with tyre selection in conditions that I'm not used to," he added.
* Both Markko Märtin and François Duval completed a pre-event test in the Cumbrian forests close to M-Sport's Dovenby Hall base. Märtin tested yesterday (Thursday) in Whinlatter Forest, concentrating on the set-up of his Focus RS WRC in the morning and then tyre testing in the afternoon. He completed more than 250km. Duval took over for the second day today.
* Stéphane Prévot will start his 100th world rally in Cardiff next week. The 35-year-old Belgian was scheduled to complete his century on the Rally Japan earlier this month but had to return home before the start for personal reasons.
* Rally GB will mark the world rally debut of 17-year-old Matthew Wilson, son of BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson. Matthew and co-driver Scott Martin lie third in the British Rally Championship in their first season of competition and are just two points behind the leader with two rounds remaining. They will drive a 2002-specification Ford Focus RS WRC entered by Eddie Stobart Motorsport.
The rally will again be based in the Welsh capital of Cardiff, with all the action taking place in the mountainous forests of south Wales. However, the single service park will be located an hour further west in Swansea. The rally opens with a super special stage in the dockland area of Cardiff on Thursday evening. Friday is the longest day of the event with 183.31km of competition split between just six long stages, four of which are based in the notoriously tricky Brechfa Forest. The bulk of the second leg is based further north, close to the Epynt military ranges, and includes a brand new test. It finishes with a second pass over the super special stage. The final day includes two attempts at the classic Rhondda test in the Vale of Neath before ending with a third pass over the Cardiff super special. Drivers face 394.03km of competition in a total of 1328.07km.