Ford Focus RS is king of the speed machines in Germany Ford BP Rallye Sport's sensational new Focus RS World Rally Car dominated the Rallye Deutschland on its asphalt debut as it claimed a double points finish on this eighth round of the FIA...
Ford Focus RS is king of the speed machines in Germany
Ford BP Rallye Sport's sensational new Focus RS World Rally Car dominated the Rallye Deutschland on its asphalt debut as it claimed a double points finish on this eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship today. Markko Märtin and Michael Park finished fifth in their Castrol-branded car with team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot seventh - although the final positions do little justice to the Focus' performance on the three-day event in south-west Germany.
Märtin, Park and their Focus RS were the star performers. They won 10 of the 22 speed tests, more than double their closest rivals, and established the radical new Ford as the fastest car on the rally on its maiden asphalt appearance. A hydraulic valve problem in the gearchange system on the opening day and transmission troubles today deprived the 27-year-old Estonian of a second world win but confirmed the victory potential of the Focus RS for the three asphalt rounds of the series in October.
Narrow but fast special stages through the heart of the Mosel vineyards contrasted with the bumpy tracks of the Baumholder tank training area, where constant surface changes tested drivers' skills to the full. Unpredictable weather required shrewd tyre selection by engineers from Ford BP and Michelin and the French firm's rubber provided the perfect companion to the Focus' speed in the varied conditions.
After leading during the opening leg, Märtin staged a remarkable recovery yesterday following the hydraulic trouble. He started the final leg, comprising six speed tests and 101.54km, in third, hoping to put pressure on the two cars ahead. However, a transmission problem on the second stage reduced the Focus RS to two-wheel drive for half of that test and all the next. The team fitted a new front and centre differential and Märtin then posted fastest time on each of the final three stages. However, the time lost dropped him to fifth.
"I was hugely impressed by the car this weekend," said Märtin. "Together with Michelin's tyres, they make a great package on asphalt. It's been a difficult rally. Conditions were tricky but we made no mistakes. I'm disappointed we missed out on a podium place but luck went against us again. What does a man have to do to get some luck? God must have taken a weekend off on the Acropolis Rally last month when we had no bad luck and won!"
Märtin's performance earned him the Inmarsat Star of the Rally award and a US$5000 prize for charity for the second time this season. He handed the trophy to Park, Ford BP tyre engineer George Black for his accurate selection in the changing weather, and to his gravel crew, Henrik Lundgaard and Mike Corner, who drive the stages ahead of the competitors to provide an accurate update on conditions.
Ford BP team-mates Duval and Prévot spent the final day engaged in a massive battle with former team-mate Carlos Sainz. The Belgians edged ahead of Sainz early this morning but the Spaniard fought back to lead after the first group of stages. Duval regained the advantage but then spun on the penultimate test and they started the final 18.93km St Wendeler Land stage split by only 0.6sec. However, Duval stalled the engine on the startline and victory in their private battle went to Sainz.
"We've worked well with Michelin this weekend and made some good tyre choices, which in the changing weather conditions we had here, is so important," said 22-year-old Duval. It's good to finish and score points for the team and myself but it's disappointing not to beat Carlos. It has been a mixed weekend for us. We made some small mistakes but also set some excellent times."
Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson expressed mixed feelings at the weekend's results. "I'm disappointed because I felt Markko had the opportunity to put pressure on Marcus Grönholm before his problem today and sad because we lost a podium result. But it has been a stunning performance from both the car and Markko. Ten fastest stage times far exceeded our expectations and now we're in a position to win on every round of the championship. We're mystified as to the cause of the transmission problem but we'll address that before the next rally in Finland," he said.
Finland's Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished 13th in an M-Sport-run 2002 specification Focus RS on only their second asphalt world rally. They steadily built up confidence and their no risks policy was rewarded with a solid result. "It was harder in the wet than I expected but I felt more comfortable as the event went on. The car was perfect, we made no mistakes and I learned a lot so I'm happy," said Hirvonen. Fellow countrymen Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished 17th in a second M-Sport Focus RS on their first world asphalt rally. Like Hirvonen, 18-year-old Latvala treated the event as a confidence-building exercise, increasing his pace as he became familiar with the car and roads.
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Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) was untroubled to claim his second consecutive Rallye Deutschland victory. He paced himself through the final stage to finish 3.6sec ahead of Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot), the Finn hurting his hopes of winning by hitting a kerb on the opening stage and damaging the steering. Richard Burns (Peugeot) took third, the Briton capitalising on a dry run through the rain-soaked stage 19 to overhaul Colin McRae (Citroen), who spun in the deluge. Behind Märtin and the battling Duval and Sainz, Petter Solberg (Subaru) took the final drivers' point and Hyundai claimed the last manufacturers' point, courtesy of Freddy Loix in 11th.
The championship reverts to gravel next month for one of the classic rallies of the season. Incredible speeds and huge jumps are the hallmarks of the Rally Finland, based in Jyväskylä on 7 - 10 August.