Ford gripped by asphalt anticipation for Focus tarmac debut After proving its rally winning pace on four gravel events, Ford's dramatic 2003 Focus RS World Rally Car will make its long-awaited asphalt debut as the FIA World Rally Championship ...
Ford gripped by asphalt anticipation for Focus tarmac debut
After proving its rally winning pace on four gravel events, Ford's dramatic 2003 Focus RS World Rally Car will make its long-awaited asphalt debut as the FIA World Rally Championship season moves into the second half on the Rallye Deutschland (24 - 27 July). The Ford BP Rallye Sport team could not have a harder challenge as the roads of south-west Germany are the most diverse in the 14-round series and offer one of the hardest engineering challenges of the year.
Rallye Deutschland is the first of four asphalt events in the second half of the year which will do much to shape the outcome of the championship. Drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park and team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot have been delighted with the performance of both the Focus RS and Michelin's all-conquering asphalt tyres in testing. The roads close to Trier, Germany's oldest city and the rally base, will provide the perfect opportunity to express that confidence in competition.
The characteristics of the speed tests are unique to the championship. The narrow stages amid the Mosel vineyards comprise blisteringly fast straights linked by tight hairpin bends and square junctions, many hidden by tall vines which provide 'tunnel' visibility. They contrast with the wider, smoother and more flowing roads of the Saaland region, which are similar to the stages on the Catalunya Rally.
And then there is Baumholder. The military land used by US soldiers for tank training is like nothing else in the championship and was christened 'the Safari of asphalt rallies' by Ford BP technical director Christian Loriaux. The fast and wide concrete roads are bumpy and abrasive, requiring strong durability from Michelin's rubber and a reliable ATS anti-deflation system in the event of a puncture. They are often lined by massive kerb stones known as 'Hinkelsteine' which sit on the edge of the road to trap the unwary. The roads are also dirty, a hazard that is worse in the wet when a fine covering of sand makes the surface even more slippery. Each type of stage requires a totally different car set-up and in a change of format for 2003, each leg contains a mix of tests, guaranteeing a busy time during service parks for mechanics and engineers.
Märtin, who will start his 50th world rally, finished sixth on his German debut in 2002 and acknowledges the difficulties the roads pose. "It's not like any other asphalt event I've driven. There are so many different road surfaces and it's not unusual to find several types on the same stage. When it's wet it's difficult to recognise which surface has good grip and which isn't so good. Probably the most difficult aspect of the event is that in the vineyards there are many hidden junctions, that you can't really see until you are right on them. It's easy to overshoot them and the rally as a whole requires a different type of driving style from other asphalt events because there's no real flow to the stages.
"The team has made big improvements to the car's asphalt performance with the 2003 model. The balance and handling has taken a big step forward since last year but I think the improvements we've made are going to benefit us more on the normal asphalt rallies later in the season," he added.
Duval will start Germany for the first time in a Focus RS WRC. His previous start there, in 2002, was in a Ford Puma as the event was a round of the Junior World Championship. The 22-year-old feels comfortable on the Mosel roads but, like Märtin, is wary of Baumholder. "The vineyard stages are similar to the roads at home in Belgium. I'm used to those and enjoy those types of tests. But there's a lot of gravel on the Baumholder stages and it's difficult to judge braking and turning points," he said.
"The military roads are also aggressive on tyres. The surface is bumpy and abrasive but I've been really pleased with Michelin's tyres during testing. They have good regularity and I don't think we'll have any problems," he added.
Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will again pilot a 2002-specification Focus RS run by M-Sport. This will be Hirvonen's German debut and also his first taste of competition on clear asphalt in a Focus. "I drove in Monte Carlo but conditions were too unpredictable to count that as pure asphalt," he said. "We have a two-day private test scheduled in Austria before the recce to help me get a feel for the car on that surface. I've never even been to Germany before so the stages will be totally new. I will start to get a feel for the roads during the recce. I trust our pace notes but of course it's different driving the same roads in a rally car and only then can you tell if your notes are perfect."
Eighteen-year-old Finn Jari-Matti Latvala and new co-driver Miikka Anttila will drive another M-Sport run Focus RS WRC. Latvala is returning to asphalt for the first time since a heavy accident in the rain on the Jim Clark Rally in Scotland earlier this month which hospitalised co-driver Carl Williamson.
"It taught me a lot about the unpredictability of asphalt and what to watch for in the wet," he said. "It was a steep learning curve. My leg is much better, although it still has a huge bruise, and I've been doing light exercise to keep it supple. The mix of surfaces means we must concentrate 200% from the start without being able to use the first day to get used to the surface and the next two working on our speed. It will be my third outing this year with Miikka. He's been competing with Finnish drivers and is used to reading pace notes in our native tongue. I prefer mine in English, so it'll be a big challenge."
* The rally has huge significance for Ford. The company's European headquarters in Cologne are less than 200km from Trier and the route passes close to Ford's factory at Saarlouis, the home of the Focus.
* The team has completed a comprehensive testing programme since the Cyprus Rally. Märtin and Duval drove for two days each on the roads of the Mosel and Baumholder before the Estonian began the team's Rally Finland preparations by winning the E.O.S. Rally in his home country by more than three minutes. Each driver then completed two days' testing in Finland itself before test driver Mark Higgins carried out five days of research and development work at a private venue in Britain this week.
* After Thursday's shakedown test, BP, Ford and the FIA Foundation will unveil a joint initiative to promote road safety through a worldwide campaign linked to the team's participation in the world championship. The three organisations will work closely to promote safe driving and in particular the importance of seatbelt safety. The campaign will be launched in the Bostalsee service park at 12.30.
* Carl Williamson, co-driver to Latvala, was transferred from hospital in the Scottish borders to his home city of Swansea on Tuesday following the pair's accident on the Jim Clark Rally. Williamson has been diagnosed with three hairline fractures of his pelvis and is set to face an operation in Swansea shortly.
* Duval will have 45 members of his official fan club supporting him in Germany. The Belgians will be camping out during the event in motorhomes.
Although remaining faithful to the mix of stages in the Mosel vineyards, on the Baumholder military land and in Saaland, the format of the rally has changed. In a bid to spread the huge crowds over a wider area, each leg contains a blend of stages from the different regions. After a ceremonial start in the heart of Trier on Thursday evening, the opening day comprises tests in the Mosel and on Baumholder before ending with a super special in the small town of St Wendel. Leg two is the longest of the rally with almost 170km of competition on Baumholder and in Saaland before a repeat of the St Wendel street stage. The final day comprises two loops of two tests in the Mosel and one in Saaland. Drivers will tackle 388.23km of competition in a total route of 1737.58km.