Lack of Sardinia experience no handicap for BP-Ford duo BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen and team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Mo& ...
Lack of Sardinia experience no handicap for BP-Ford duo
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen and team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Možný face a steep learning curve as Sardinia's gravel roads signal the FIA World Rally Championship's return to Europe after two flyaway rounds. However, their lack of experience there should not prove a great handicap as organisers of the Rally Italia Sardinia (28 April - 1 May) have introduced major changes to the route following last year's inaugural event.
Gardemeister's previous competitive experience in Sardinia amounts to 15km, the 30-year-old Finn retiring on the opening stage last year when driving for Skoda. Ironically, that 15km section has been axed from this year's itinerary. He returned to tackle the second leg under the experimental SupeRally rules but delays blighted his day. Kresta had never set foot there before arriving this week for a test.
More than 75% of the competitive distance in the rugged mountains in the north of the Mediterranean island will be new as organisers search for wider and faster roads. Knowledge gained from the 2004 event will therefore be of minimal use, and a five-day test ahead of the recce will allow Gardemeister and Kresta to gain a good understanding of the characteristics of the Sardinian tracks.
This is the first time that Italy's round of the WRC has been held in the first half of the season. The roads mostly comprise fine gravel on top of a hard base, but they can become rougher after the first pass with exposed rocks ready to inflict damage. Springtime in an island environment can also bring unpredictable weather, and teams must expect rain which could dramatically change the conditions and influence tyre choice.
The team will aim to extend its record-breaking scoring run which has brought 48 consecutive WRC points finishes with the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, a remarkable blend of speed and reliability. It dates back to the 2002 Monte Carlo Rally and is the longest in championship history.
Gardemeister lies equal fourth in the drivers' standings in his Castrol-backed Focus RS after four of the 16 rounds. The Finn has scored on all rounds to date but admits he doesn't know what to expect of the upcoming event. "My experience there is small," he said. "I learned something about the roads last year when I came back to do SupeRally on the second day, but I had problems so the benefits weren't great. If you drive special stages in the same area then it gives a feeling for their characteristics, but it's never the same as driving the exact roads.
"There are so many new stages this year that nobody is going to have a big advantage. Last year's roads were narrow with a lot of stones on the edge. I think this year's rally will be faster but we won't really know until we practise the stages on Tuesday and Wednesday," he added.
Gardemeister is keen to make the most of his two-day test which starts tomorrow (Saturday). "It will give me the opportunity to test the tyres and establish a good set-up for the Focus. I want to try Michelin's new construction hard compound tyres which worked so well on the last round in New Zealand. They were great in the higher temperatures during the afternoon and the grip was good, even in loose conditions. But I'm not sure whether temperatures will be high enough in Sardinia for them to be as effective," added Gardemeister.
Kresta's confidence was knocked by his pre-event crash in New Zealand but the 28-year-old Czech quickly overcame that problem in testing. "I drove cautiously during the first morning but I soon found a good feeling with the Focus and I've had three days of good work which have left me feeling confident. I've wiped the crash from my memory," he said.
"I spent one day trying different suspension set-ups, one day working with differential settings and one day testing Michelin's tyres. I covered 72km on one set of tyres with no problems which is encouraging for the rally. It's difficult to know what the best settings are because I've never driven here, but I feel that I now have an understanding of the kind of roads I can expect."
"As it's a new rally to me, my aim will be to learn about the stages. I will take no risks and concentrate on improving my knowledge. The more experience I can get of the stages, the more it will benefit me for the future, but I'm still keen to collect points for BP-Ford," he added.
* The second day of BP-Ford's test was carried out on a stage from last year's rally which will not be used this year. "It was the slowest stage of the rally in 2004," said test manager George Black. "We chose it deliberately so that we can develop a strong set-up for the slower sections which will improve our performance on those kind of roads," he said.
* Five privately-entered Focus RS cars will start. Antony Warmbold and Henning Solberg will both drive M-Sport-built cars and they will share a sixth day of testing on Monday. Mark Higgins and Matthew Wilson will drive 2003 and 2002 specification Focus RS cars respectively from British-based team Eddie Stobart Motorsport. Finland's Mikko Hirvonen will also drive a 2003 Focus WRC.
* BP-Ford has nominated Michelin's Z pattern tyre for the event. Designed for a clear and hard surface, the Z tyre has a relatively compact tread pattern to ensure the maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the road for the best possible grip and traction. If the weather is wet or the roads have more loose gravel on them then expected, the team can cut the Z tyre to a ZA pattern. It is a more open tread, designed to penetrate the loose surface in search of firmer ground deeper down.
The rally is again based around Olbia, in the north-east of the island, with the stages in the wild mountains to the west and south. But in an effort to use wider and faster roads, organisers have made sweeping changes and 78% of the route is new. Ten of the 17 stages are new and only one is broadly the same as 2004. The luxury resort of Porto Rotondo, on the beautiful Costa Smeralda coastline, will host the ceremonial start on Thursday evening and Sunday's finish. The rest of the event will revolve around a new service park in the heart of Olbia. The opening leg takes competitors south to the slopes of Monte Tepilora and Punta sa Donna and the natural park of Monte Olia. The bulk of the second day is located further west in the hills of Monte Lerno and is the longest at 144.01km. It includes two passes over the 38.77km Tandalo, the longest test of the rally. The final leg is all new, most of it based around the historic town of Tempio Pausania. All but one test are used twice and drivers will tackle 350.03km of stages in a route of 1192.28km.