Ford Rallye Sport takes its full squad to Europe's biggest car market for the first time as the Rallye Deutschland (22 - 25 August) makes its first appearance in the FIA World Rally Championship. But for the team, lying second in the 14-round ...
Ford Rallye Sport takes its full squad to Europe's biggest car market for the first time as the Rallye Deutschland (22 - 25 August) makes its first appearance in the FIA World Rally Championship. But for the team, lying second in the 14-round series after three victories so far this season, the German rally will not be the step into the unknown that it promises to be for many rivals.
When the rally looked almost certain of being promoted into the championship 12 months ago, Ford sent a Focus RS World Rally Car to the 2001 event to sample the unique asphalt speed tests in the west of the country. The experience gained from Francois Delecour's third place finish will be put to good use in the preparation of the team's three Focus RS cars for this year's rally, round 10 of the championship.
But for Colin McRae and Nicky Grist, second in the drivers' standings, third-placed Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya and junior pairing Markko Märtin and Michael Park, the rally marks their first competitive outing in Germany. A test last month on roads in the region around Trier, home to the rally and Germany's oldest city, is their only guide to what lies ahead.
The rally has huge significance for Ford, whose European headquarters in Cologne are less than 200km from Trier and the final leg passes close to Ford's factory at Saarlouis where the Focus is built. But it also adds another dimension to rallying's premier championship. The narrow roads of the Mosel wine region and the hugely contrasting fast, wide and bumpy concrete roads on the daunting Baumholder military land will offer the type of terrain not seen on any other round in the series and the form book may not carry the same relevance that it does elsewhere.
"I have very little knowledge of the rally, really only what I've heard from others, so it's one of those events where you have to wait and see for yourself," said McRae. "The three days are very different so I think that because the surfaces are so varied, it will give everyone the same advantage. I'm looking forward to it as it's always exciting to have a new event in the championship.
"We've tested in Germany and were pleased with the outcome. The team has worked hard on the asphalt performance of the Focus and testing proved we've made advances in handling and performance. I think for this event we'll need to get things right from day one and the challenge is to continue to do that each day. We'll know a lot more during the recce which will prove a steep learning curve and I expect tyre choice will play a big part in maintaining any advantage," added the 34-year-old Scot.
For Sainz, the Rallye Deutschland will be the 17th different world rally he has started. "It's nice to try new rallies and new stages so long as they're good ones and worthy of a place in the championship," said the 40-year-old Madrid-based driver. "It's certainly not going to be the same as the traditional asphalt events in the series. The stages are different from those we're used to and that will be a new challenge but until I've driven them at competitive speeds, I can't say whether I'll like them or not."
Märtin admits that the stages on the military land will be the toughest. "It's going to be a very difficult rally because each leg is different and so choosing the right set-up for the car will be crucial. The second leg will be slippery and quite rough and if it rains it will be even worse. It will be very easy to make a mistake on those roads but because the rally is new for virtually all the drivers we must make the most of that and challenge hard right from the start," said the 26-year-old Estonian.
Reigning European champion Armin Kremer and co-driver Dieter Schneppenheim will also drive a Focus RS on their home event. Kremer won the rally in 1999, when it was a round of the European Championship, and has set his sights on a top 10 finish. "It's interesting to have three different types of rally in one event," he said. "We hope to gain an advantage on the first day in the vineyards because there experience counts more. On the second day in Baumholder the roads are faster so I think knowledge is not too important but tyre performance will be crucial as the surface is hard on them."
In The Spotlight
Rarely does a rally present three days of competition on such widely differing terrain. The roads vary so much from leg to leg that Ford Rallye Sport engineers compare it to preparing for three entirely different rallies. Narrow roads through the Mosel vineyards, bordered by vines up to two metres tall, with many square bends, give the impression of driving through a tunnel on the opening day. They contrast with the wider, smoother and more flowing tests in Saaland on the final day that have been compared with the roads on Spain's Catalunya Rally.
But the most unique stages are on the exposed Baumholder military ranges over fast and wide concrete roads, usually used by German and US soldiers for tank training exercises. The surface is bumpy and abrasive, requiring strong performance from Pirelli's tyres and its anti-deflation system, which keeps the rubber inflated in the event of punctures. But in the wet, a fine covering of sand makes the surface extremely slippery and massive kerb stones, known as 'Hinkelsteine', on the edge of the road are ready to catch the unwary.
"Baumholder is the Safari of asphalt rallies," said Ford Rallye Sport technical director Christian Loriaux. "It will be a big surprise for those who haven't been there before - very bumpy and quite treacherous. Car strength will be important and small driving mistakes will be heavily punished. The roads on the first two days are very different from anything we've ever seen in the world championship."
The three legs are very different in both location and the nature of the roads. After a ceremonial start in the heart of Trier on Thursday evening, the opening day heads north for stages through the narrow vineyards of the Mosel region. The middle leg is the longest of the rally and journeys east to the Baumholder military area while the final day reverts to narrower stages in the undulating Saaland region, south-east of Trier. A spectacular super special stage through the streets of St Wendel completes the action on both the second and third legs. Drivers face 416.01km of competition in a route of 1449.19km.