A different sort of asphalt. There will be no escaping the fact that this year's Rallye Deutschland marks the start of the second half of the 2003 World Championship. Nor that most of the remaining rounds will be on asphalt. Four from seven to...
A different sort of asphalt.
There will be no escaping the fact that this year's Rallye Deutschland marks the start of the second half of the 2003 World Championship. Nor that most of the remaining rounds will be on asphalt. Four from seven to be precise. The way teams and drivers perform on this type of surface is therefore poised to play a key role in how the battle for both titles unfolds. But just how accurately will Germany's final pecking order reflect that of October's mini-tour of Mediterranean tarmac? Meanwhile, three of the rallies to come are fairly specialised gravel encounters (Finland, Australia, Great Britain) which suggests that the names that will eventually be engraved on the 2003 crowns are by no means a foregone conclusion. Whichever way it goes in Trier.
There may not be a world of difference between the contour-hugging stages of Sanremo, Corsica and Catalonia (which the WRC will tackle in quick succession in October) and Rallye Deutschland's cocktail of Mosel vineyards, military ranges and wooded valleys. But apart from their obvious common denominator - asphalt - the challenge associated with these two types of terrain is far from identical.
From the constant hard cornering of the Mediterranean classics to the less flowing rhythm of the German tests, driving styles and the mission of the tyre/suspension package differ significantly, and to put these two genres into the same basket could be likened to comparing gravel events as different as New Zealand and Cyprus. There is effectively asphalt. and asphalt. Indeed, it this very variety that constitutes one of the sport's major draws.
For the challenge of Germany, Michelin's partners will be able to count on the latest evolutions of the firm's 'FP' generation asphalt range, a technically sophisticated product unbeaten since its introduction in 1998, although its cornering grip potential will doubtlessly be less pushed to the extreme in Trier than it will later in the year in Corsica, Sanremo and Catalonia.
But while the value of this weekend's action as a pointer to the final championship outcome is likely to be no more than approximate, it will certainly have plenty to entertain the hundreds of thousands of spectators expected in Trier. The combination of the event's summer date, the beauty of the region and its geographical location - close to the Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourg and French borders - is once again guaranteed to draw a large, cosmopolitan crowd of enthusiasts.
And with more than twenty top cars entered by the WRC manufacturers or via their satellite teams, the show promises to be of an exceptionally high standard!
On the technical front
True asphalt, or not?. With the exception of the concrete portions drivers will face over the Baumholder ranges, of course Rallye Deutschland is a true asphalt event. From the tyre angle, however, the German challenge is far from that of the sealed surface classics of the Mediterranean rim.
Obviously, a good asphalt tyre has to be strong in the domains of both acceleration and braking. But it's above all its cornering performance - especially through the longer corners - that makes the most significant difference. And this is a parameter that is pretty much minimised on the German round.
The tests through the Mosel vineyards are essentially a series of straights and tight turns, while the military ranges' cocktail of concrete and inconsistent asphalt places the emphasis more on drivability and vertical suspension travel than on the tyres' road-holding qualities.
An exception is the undulating terrain in the Saint Wendel area where the stages are less 'point and squirt' than those of the Mosel valley, although even here they are much less flowing than their southern European counterparts.
Testing. Rallye Deutschland's specific terrain and conditions are not sufficiently selective to permit extensive testing and development work of a nature that can be carried over to the other three asphalt rounds of the calendar.
The Michelin 'FP': 14 wins in total. Michelin's Rallye Deutschland range will therefore be competitive but the characteristics of its products will be more oriented towards 'classic' asphalt. Evolution tyres will be available, but there will be no special new developments.
Copied yet unrivalled since its launch on the 1998 Sanremo Rally, Michelin's 'FP' generation asphalt range has never been beaten on 'clear' asphalt (Catalonia, Corsica, Deutschland, Sanremo). Its fourteen wins to date have been achieved with four different manufacturers (Peugeot 7, Citroën 4, Mitsubishi 2, Ford 1) and seven different drivers (Panizzi 6, Mäkinen et Bugalski 2, C. McRae, Auriol, Puras et Loeb 1).
The Michelin TA Baumholder. For the 2002 Rallye Deutschland, a new product - the Michelin TA Baumholder - was developed specifically for the day of action over the Baumholder military ranges. As it turned out, however, this tyre did not get a chance to show itself off to its best advantage after the organisers took steps to clean the dirtiest stages prior to the start, a decision that was obviously positive for the sport.
It is difficult to imagine that a similar measure will not be taken this time round, but in case it isn't, Michelin's partners will once again have a choice of products designed to make driving easier and more predictable through the dirtiest portions.
Welcome to the Skoda Fabia. It's not every day that a new model arrives on the WRC scene, and every new car or major evolution represents a step forward in the optimisation of such key factors as weight distribution, differential management, chassis rigidity and suspension efficiency.
All these parameters combine to ensure the most favourable environment possible for the tyres, the role of which in the overall performance package is amplified by their undersized dimensions imposed by today's regulations.
Accordingly, at a very early stage in the latest arrival's development, the engineers behind the Fabia WRC project, like their counterparts with all Michelin's WRC partners, were able to benefit from access to Michelin's advanced calculation, simulation and test track facilities in Clermont Ferrand.
Michelin's partnership with Skoda Motorsport, which today forms part of its global association with the VAG Group in the world of competition, dates back to the launch of the Felicia in the early 1990s (victory in the 1994 2- litre, 2-wheel drive World Cup) and continued with the Felicia Kit Car which was introduced in 1995. When the Czech carmaker chose to make the step up to WRC level with the Octavia WRC in 1999, it naturally turned to Michelin as its tyre partner.
Michelin has a total staff of 28 in Germany. The total number of covers available for Michelin's WRC partners is 4,680 carried in 12 semi-trailer workshops. All tyres are fitted with Michelin's ATS system (Appui Temporaire Souple). These figures do not include those teams supplied and serviced by Michelin Germany.
The tread patterns of all these products can be fine-tuned to match the conditions on the day thanks to the technique of re-cutting. They are all available in a choice of compounds according to ground temperature and/or the amount of dampness in the stage.
The second Rallye Deutschland to count towards the WRC will once again be based in the region of Trier, within easy reach of Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France. It is therefore an ideal venue for rally fans hailing from these countries which, with the exception of France, never get to see WRC action on their soil.
The three distinct types of terrain visited by the 2002 event - namely the Mosel Valley vineyards, the Baumholder military ranges and the twisty Saarland roads - continue to be featured, but this time round the organisers have opted to run a cocktail of each every day instead of having 'specialised' legs.
This has allowed them to base the entire rally on a single service park in Bostalsee, a location with which those who competed in the 2002 event will be familiar since it served on both the Saturday and Sunday.
Despite the revised itinerary, one of the major challenges of this year's event remains the awesome Panzerplatte tests in Baumholder ranges. Their mixture of concrete and often broken up asphalt is unlike any other tarmac stage of the championship and their surface could become very slippery if it rains...