Ford Focus rally car leads on asphalt debut in Germany Ford's radical new Focus RS World Rally Car made an outstanding debut on asphalt today by leading the first leg of the Rallye Deutschland. The Focus RS proved its winning capabilities on ...
Ford Focus rally car leads on asphalt debut in Germany
Ford's radical new Focus RS World Rally Car made an outstanding debut on asphalt today by leading the first leg of the Rallye Deutschland. The Focus RS proved its winning capabilities on gravel by claiming victory on only its third rally in Greece last month. Today it answered all the questions about its potential on asphalt in the hands of Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park.
The Acropolis Rally winners powered the Castrol-branded Focus RS into the lead of this eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship after blitzing the opposition on the daunting Baumholder military tracks. They set fastest time on consecutive speed tests over what are regarded as the toughest asphalt roads in the championship to move to the front of the field. Unfortunately a hydraulic valve problem on the day's final group of stages damaged the car's gearbox and dropped the duo to 10th.
Team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot also found the Focus RS to their liking on the sealed surface tracks and climbed to third before a spin cost valuable seconds. They ended the day seventh.
An estimated 10,000 fans watched last night's ceremonial start in Trier, Germany's oldest city, ahead of the first competitive action today. The opening leg comprised two loops of two stages in the narrow but fast vineyard roads of the Mosel region, split by two more tests over the unpredictable Baumholder roads that are more normally used for tank training exercises by the United States and German Armies.
Martin finished the opening loop in third before two stage wins promoted him into first place, more then 12 seconds clear of championship leader Richard Burns. "I was surprised we opened up such a gap because it was a new experience for us to go to Baumholder with this car to see how it worked, but I was impressed. It felt fantastic. The balance was good, the suspension and engine worked well, Michelin's tyres were strong and reliable and sometimes even the driver was good! This event is the Acropolis of asphalt rallies so maybe that's why the car is so competitive," said the Estonian.
However, a problem with the hydraulic valve in the fifth stage back in the Mosel damaged fifth and sixth gears and left 27-year-old Martin with only first to fourth for half of that test and all the next. He lost more than 90 seconds. "We approached a junction about 5km after the start in sixth gear and I tried to change down to fifth but it wouldn't work properly. We had to stop and change to the manual gearchange system. Because we didn't have a handbrake, we had to stop and reverse round some of the tight hairpin junctions among the vines. Before that happened we were right on the pace. We were going fast enough and there was no need to go any faster. It was just bad luck," he said.
Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson explained the problem. "The hydraulic valve that operates the gear shift failed on the downchange side. It's the same type of valve we've used since 2000 and isn't relevant to the new car. It damaged fifth and sixth gears so we fitted a new gearbox. It's disappointing but I've been delighted with the car on its first asphalt rally. We've proved we're competitive on this surface and we'll be competitive on all the remaining rounds of the championship," he said.
Duval settled into the rally over the first loop. "I felt quite nervous before the first stage and maybe I drove too hard as a result so I slowed a little for the second test. Drivers ahead of us were cutting corners and dragging gravel onto the road so it was quite slippery," he said.
The 22-year-old Belgian climbed to third but dropped 15 seconds after spinning 1km from the end of the 35.42km Panzerplatte Ost stage, the longest of the three-day rally. "I drove too aggressively on the rough, concrete roads and we started to lose grip and that caused the spin. I've been driving too physically and I need to drive more smoothly and look after the tyres more. Tomorrow I'll try to change my style. What I've gained by being aggressive and pushing hard, I've lost by reducing the grip on my tyres. The broken concrete on Baumholder can destroy tyres if you're too hard but seventh is OK tonight. The car has felt perfect all day and I'm really happy with my pace notes," he said.
Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lie 16th in an M-Sport-run 2002-specification Focus RS on only their second asphalt event in a World Rally Car. "I'm learning how to drive on this surface so I started slowly and will build up speed during the weekend," said 22-year-old Hirvonen. "My times are close to those of the works Hyundai and Skodas and that's the pace I would like to see myself at."
Fellow countrymen Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are 26th, the 18-year-old Finnish driver also building his confidence on his first world rally on asphalt. "I'm learning all the time and my pace will increase as my confidence grows," said Latvala. "It's getting better every stage."
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Unlike recent all-gravel events, running first on the road proved no disadvantage for championship leader Richard Burns (Peugeot) and he took an early lead through the Mosel tests. He gave best to Martin over Baumholder but regained the initiative when the Estonian hit troubles and ended the day 9.4sec clear of Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot). In third was 2002 rally winner Sebastien Loeb (Citroen), who eased into the event before stepping up the pace in the afternoon with one fastest time. Colin McRae (Citroen) drove the long Panzerplatte stage cautiously having lost his sump guard during an overshoot on the previous stage, but he holds fourth ahead of Gilles Panizzi (Peugeot). The Frenchman is driving with a broken rib after a testing accident but his only problem today came when he damaged his car's suspension in a compression on Baumholder. Petter Solberg (Subaru) wasn't feeling well and he twice lost time with overshoots while team-mate Tommi Makinen was one of the day's few major retirements. The Finn's power steering drive belt failed before stage six. The belt also powers the alternator and although he completed the stage he became stuck in traffic just 1.5km from the final service park and with no charge in the battery, the car stopped. The rally marked the debut of the new Skoda Fabia but Didier Auriol retired one of the cars on the final stage with engine failure.
The second leg again contains a mix of different types of stages. Drivers face two loops of two tests in the Saaland region, south-east of Trier, at the beginning and end of the day. They are split by two laps of two tests on the Baumholder military land and the leg again finishes with a super special stage through the town of St Wendel. Competitors leave Trier at 06.30 and return at 20.16 after nine stages covering 169.38km, the longest day of the event.