Ford aims to show true grit on Portuguese gravel The Ford Martini team will warm to the gravel roads of the Rally of Portugal (8 - 11 March) as the FIA World Rally Championship comes in from the cold after last month's only true winter rally of...
Ford aims to show true grit on Portuguese gravel
The Ford Martini team will warm to the gravel roads of the Rally of Portugal (8 - 11 March) as the FIA World Rally Championship comes in from the cold after last month's only true winter rally of the season in Sweden. The teams now switch away from snow and ice to the loose surface roads which comprise the bulk of the series.
After the unpredictable conditions on the opening two events in Monte Carlo and Sweden, the consistency of the gravel on this third round of the 14-rally season should provide the first real indication of form for the year ahead.
And Ford Martini drivers Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya, Colin McRae and Nicky Grist and François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup know just what it takes to master the demanding Portuguese speed tests, having won five times between them in its last nine championship appearances. Sainz won in 1991 and 1995, Delecour claimed his maiden world rally win in 1993, and McRae triumphed in 1998 and 1999.
Given the pace of their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars on the opening two rounds, adding to that record is well within their grasp. This year the team has scored more than double the number of special stage wins than any other manufacturer and that has helped Sainz to hold a share of the championship lead with two podium finishes.
Stages like Fafe and Arganil have earned the rally its reputation as one of the classic events in the championship and tens of thousands of fanatical fans who flock into the stages to offer vocal support to their heroes provide an atmosphere rarely matched anywhere else in the world.
"Many people come across the border from Spain to support us, which gives us a good feeling," said Sainz. "This will be our first gravel rally with Pirelli. There was heavy rain when we tested in Portugal in January but so long as the weather is better we should be able to achieve all we need at our test before the rally.
"It's a hard rally on the transmission because the surface is constantly changing and is complex. Some roads are rough, some sandy and some rocky and you need a good overall set-up of the car to get the best out of it in the different circumstances. Our confidence is high after two good results so far and after a second and a third let's hope we can return with a first from Portugal," added the Madrid-based driver.
McRae said: "Some of the stages are quite rough, especially around Arganil. There are a lot of loose rocks and the base bedrock becomes exposed by the edge of the road. So if you make a mistake and go off line it's easy to damage the car.
"The stages themselves are quite straightforward although those in the Fafe area are a little more technical. The stages there clean up quickly with the passage of cars so a lower position in the start order, which we will have on the first leg, will help. Those roads require good feedback about the conditions from gravel crews because a poor tyre choice makes a big difference on those stages," added the 32-year-old Scot.
Delecour admits he is looking forward to driving the Focus on gravel in competition for the first time. "I tested the car in Portugal when the weather was fine and covered about 250km in one day. It was good. This rally will be the final part in my learning curve of the Focus. I drove on dry asphalt and snow and ice-covered asphalt in Monte Carlo and on pure snow and ice in Sweden. All that is left is a gravel rally and I'm looking forward to that.
"Although I've only competed in Portugal once in the last five years, I don't think that will count against me. I was fifth last year after a four year break and there are several new stages this year which will lessen the advantage of previous experience," said the 38-year-old Frenchman.
Challenge of the Rally of Portugal
After the specialised nature of the opening two rounds, the sight of gravel roads is a welcome one, the loose surface stages representing a 'second beginning' to the season. The constantly changing Alpine roads of the Monte Carlo Rally and Sweden's snow-covered tracks can be dismissed in offering a reliable insight into which teams have the right package for a title-winning year. But behind the consistency offered by Portugal's gravel lies the inconsistency thrown up by the different types of loose surface.
Unlike most gravel rallies, the road surface varies widely. The opening leg tests around Fafe are sandy while those further south around Arganil are rockier and more rutted. Indeed, Sainz believes there are around five or six different types of surface on the rally.
To complicate the situation, the weather is unpredictable at this time of the year. Poor weather can force ground temperatures down to around 5°C but if the rally is blessed with spring sunshine that will rise significantly while the threat of rain adds to the uncertainty. Drivers can face stages where clouds of dust hanging across the hills mark the passage of the cars while just 24 hours later heavy rain can cover the roads in a slippery layer of mud.
With teams restricted to just two basic tyre tread patterns, it means that specialist rubber for extreme conditions is a luxury that cannot be contemplated. A good compromise tyre for dry weather and another for wet conditions is the staple choice, leaving drivers and engineers free to choose from a variety of compounds or make additional cuts to the pattern in an attempt to gain an advantage.
The rally base has switched from the Port wine city of Porto to Santa Maria da Feira, 20kms south, but the format and the stages follow a similar pattern to last year. However, severe winter flooding has caused organisers serious problems and forced alterations to some stage routes. After the opening super special at Baltar rallycross circuit on Thursday evening, the route heads north-east on Friday to the sandy roads in the hills around Fafe, the day ending with a second super special at Lousada rallycross circuit. Leg 2, the longest of the event, takes drivers south to the rockier tests in the Arganil area, with the short final morning centred close to the border with Spain around Ponte de Lima. Drivers will tackle 22 stages covering 390.14km in a total route of 1794km. While those stages are not especially long, they have a reputation for taking their toll on the cars.
- Mark Wilford