Ford Rallye Sport trio goes in search of Turkish delight. After starting the FIA World Rally Championship season with two of the most difficult, specialised and unpredictable events on the 14-round calendar, Ford Rallye Sport faces a step into...
Ford Rallye Sport trio goes in search of Turkish delight.
After starting the FIA World Rally Championship season with two of the most difficult, specialised and unpredictable events on the 14-round calendar, Ford Rallye Sport faces a step into the unknown when it tackles the Rally of Turkey (27 February - 2 March). It is not only the first time the series has visited Turkey, it is also the first occasion on which the championship has set foot in the Middle East.
Amid many 'firsts', the rally also marks a 'last' for the Ford squad. The Rally of Turkey will be the final event for the team's frontline drivers in the current Focus RS World Rally Car. Markko Märtin and Michael Park and team-mates François Duval and new co-driver Stéphane Prévot will sit behind the wheel of the radical new 2003 Focus RS rally car, yet to be unveiled to the public, for the first time in competition on the next round in New Zealand next month.
Turkey has replaced Kenya's Safari Rally in the 2003 championship, becoming the 25th different country to host a world rally, and although everything will be new to the Ford team, the terrain should have a familiar feel. Twisty and rocky gravel roads, high in the Anatolian mountains above the southern coastal resort and rally base of Kemer, will provide a tough test for man and machine. But they are just the kind of conditions in which the Focus RS revels.
The roads bear a distinct resemblance to those on the Cyprus Rally and the Acropolis Rally in Greece, the roughest events in the world championship and rallies on which the Focus RS has a tremendous recent record. Victory in Greece in each of the last three seasons and two wins in Cyprus over the same period show just how suited the Focus is to the more rugged rallies.
The special stages are run at an average altitude of 1200 metres and the threat of rain, or even snow (which could force late revisions to the route) at this time of the year is high. After severe winter storms the roads are certain to be rough and although the twisty nature of the tracks means average speeds are expected to be little more than 80kph, the rate of attrition could be high.
None of the official manufacturer drivers have tackled the event in a four-wheel drive World Rally Car, ensuring that previous experience and knowledge of the terrain will play no part. It is a fact that Märtin, who finished fourth on the opening two rounds in Monte Carlo and Sweden and lies joint third in the drivers' standings, feels will assist him.
"I would like to think that it will offer me an advantage," he said. "On every other rally some drivers have more experience than others and that helps them. Here it will be the same for everyone. Everybody must make new pace notes which isn't a problem for me because I'm confident that our pace note system is good. But with only two passes through the stages allowed during the recce, it means we have to pay attention and concentrate hard because there are only two chances to get the notes right.
"I hope the roads are not too rough because I don't enjoy those conditions but we have a car which has proved itself, strong, fast and reliable in those conditions. The chances to get into trouble are greater on rough rallies but the Focus has won often on such events so I'm not afraid of driving at 100% from the start," said the 27-year-old Estonian.
Duval has a new co-driver for the rally, the 22-year-old Belgian having chosen experienced fellow countryman Stéphane Prévot to replace Jean-Marc Fortin. "Stéphane is very experienced and it's important for me to have an experienced co-driver alongside me. We have tested together this week so I don't think we will have any problems settling in on the rally itself," said Duval "I'm looking forward to Turkey because it's a gravel event and I prefer loose surface rallies. I enjoy. competing on new rallies and driving on new roads. Because I'm young and don't have the same kind of experience as older drivers on other rallies, it's going to be good to compete on an event where the stages are new to everyone. I drove the Focus on the Cyprus Rally last year, which is another rough event, so I know it's good in those conditions and I'm confident of a good result," he added.
Ford's third pairing of Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will start the rally with their confidence boosted by a solid 11th place finish on the Swedish Rally, only their second event with the Ford team and only their fifth world rally.
"In Sweden I learned a lot about the Focus and my confidence improved enormously as the rally progressed," said the 22-year-old Finnish driver. "So while my target in Turkey is firstly to finish, I think I can try to drive a little faster than I have in Monte Carlo and Sweden. My favourite surfaces are gravel and snow so a rough rally wouldn't be new to me. I competed in many rallies in Italy last year and the roads on some of those were terribly rough. Almost all the drivers will start with no previous experience in Turkey so that might be an advantage to us but there again I expect the same drivers to come to the top of the leaderboard eventually."
* The 2003 specification Focus RS WRC underwent further development testing in northern England in the past week. Märtin, Duval and Hirvonen all enjoyed time behind the wheel during the seven-day gravel test which covered more than 1000km.
* Duval was the star guest at the Nancy Motor Show in north-eastern France last Saturday where he was interviewed on the main stage and signed autographs for fans.
* New co-driver Prévot has enjoyed two previous spells with the Ford team. He partnered Bruno Thiry in an Escort Cosworth from 1994-96 and then again in an Escort World Rally Car in 1998.
* Ford Rallye Sport team director Malcolm Wilson will make a one-off return to the driving seat early next month. Wilson will drive a Focus RS on the Malcolm Wilson Rally on March 8, based at the team's headquarters at Dovenby Hall in north-western England. The one-day event is a round of Britain's BTRDA Championship and features gravel tests in the forests in the heart of the Lake District. He will be co-driven by son Matthew.
* Ford was the best selling vehicle brand in Turkey last year, claiming 13.7% of the market share.
The coastal town of Kemer, 40km from the larger holiday resort of Antalya, provides the single service park for the rally. However, the event begins with a ceremonial start and a tight and twisty super special stage in Antalya on Thursday evening. The remainder of the rally's 380.00km of competition will be based on rough gravel roads in the Anatolian mountains to the west, high above Kemer. Eight of the 18 special stages will be used twice, although one section will be included in another speed test and used for a third time and a very short stretch of road will be used on four occasions. The Perge test, at 32.85km, is the longest of the event and is used on the first and last legs while the second leg is the longest of the rally, comprising 158.72km of competition. However, organisers are likely to have to revise some sections of the route after snow in the mountains this week.