Leader Ford aims to send Swedish chill through rivals Central Sweden's numbing cold and barren, ice-bound countryside traditionally provide the harshest environment of the FIA World Rally Championship season and a cruel contrast to the glitz of...
Leader Ford aims to send Swedish chill through rivals
Central Sweden's numbing cold and barren, ice-bound countryside traditionally provide the harshest environment of the FIA World Rally Championship season and a cruel contrast to the glitz of last month's opening round in Monte Carlo. But for BP-Ford World Rally Team's drivers, the Scandinavian winter provides the perfect opportunity to keep the heat turned up on their rivals.
Debutant drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen and team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Tomanek gave BP-Ford a superb start to the season on the French asphalt in their Focus RS World Rally Cars. Second for Gardemeister and eighth for Kresta means the team will start the Swedish Rally (10 - 13 February) as joint leaders of the manufacturers' series. It is strengthened by the addition of Norwegians Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud, who are nominated for manufacturer points alongside Gardemeister, in place of Kresta who is less experienced in these specialised conditions.
The rally is the only pure winter event of the 16-round series. Fast, flowing and frozen snow-covered roads are a driver's delight as tyres fitted with tungsten-tipped steel studs bite into the icy surface to provide incredible grip. But until last week, the Varmland region which hosts the event was lacking the main ingredient for a winter rally - snow. However, recent falls and temperatures dropping to -10C suggest conditions will be tolerable, with more snow forecast in the next week.
What might be missing are the frozen snow banks which line the tracks. Drivers use them as an integral part of their driving style, 'leaning' their cars into them to guide them around corners at maximum speed. Difficulties arise if temperatures are not cold enough to freeze the snow adequately. Instead of bouncing off the packed banks, cars can be either dragged into the crumbling snow where they become stuck or plough through them and off the road.
Even with minimal snow and ice, the roads will be treacherous. BP-Ford will combat those conditions by fitting the Focus RS cars with skinny Michelin ice tyres, equipped with studs that are available in different lengths to provide grip. As a result the rally is one of the fastest and most spectacular of the year. As part of championship-wide cost reduction measures, only one tread pattern will be available to drivers for the first time.
Along with the Rally Finland, 29-year-old Gardemeister rates Sweden as his favourite rally. "The roads are fast and flowing and it's fun to play with the car in winter conditions. Competing on snow is similar to driving on a fast gravel rally. Sometimes studs give even better grip than gravel. If there is a clear line on the road, it's important to stay in it because that's where the grip is found. Move off the line onto fresh snow and the grip becomes less and time is wasted," he said.
"It's still early in my career with Ford and the Focus RS, but this is one of the rallies where I think a win is realistic. Much depends on the weather. We will start the first day second on the road. If temperatures are above freezing and the snow is soft, we will have poor grip in that position and will lose time clearing the snow for those behind to have a cleaner line. But if it's old snow and the roads are frozen and icy, then grip will be good," he added.
Milder weather would bring other difficulties. As the roads thaw, the studs pierce into the gravel beneath, which in turn rips them from the rubber blocks on the tyres and leaves drivers with precious little grip. "Grip is everything on this rally," said 28-year-old Kresta. "In real winter conditions the studs provide great traction, but when the temperatures warm up it can be very hard on both tyres and studs."
The Czech driver has competed in Sweden once, finishing 14th in 2003. His aim is to gain more knowledge and feels the decision not to nominate him for manufacturer points, eases the pressure. "I don't have great experience in Sweden, but I enjoy driving on snow and ice and had a good test there before Christmas when I drove the Focus for the first time," he said.
"It's easier for me now that I don't have to worry about points because I can concentrate on improving my knowledge. If I can score drivers' points that would be superb, but it will be difficult because there are many competitive drivers and cars entered. My result in Monte Carlo gave me good confidence. Every day I was quicker and on the final leg my speed was constant, not just on some stages. I have a much better feeling with the car," he added.
Solberg claimed a career-best sixth place in Sweden last year. "I started competing on snow and that's why I love those conditions. I'm delighted Ford has the confidence to nominate me for manufacturer points. I drove a 2002-specification Focus last weekend in Norway and that was the best car I've driven. The 2004 Focus will be even better. I will have the best car and the best tyres, so the rest is down to me. I like to have en easy car to drive and the Focus is smooth. I'm looking forward to competing in a car with the gearchange system mounted on the steering wheel. I've never had that opportunity before but it's much easier and faster," he said.
Solberg is expected to start the opening day 16th on the road and so faces a contrasting situation to Gardemeister. "If conditions remain as they are now, then competitors higher up the start order have the advantage. If it starts snowing heavily, I will have a good position," added Solberg.
* Solberg and Menkerud warmed up for the event by winning the Rally Hadeland, second round of the Norwegian Rally Championship, on Saturday. Driving a 2002-specification Focus RS, Solberg was fastest over all seven stages to win by 64 seconds.
* Antony Warmbold will have a new co-driver for the rally. Michael Orr, who partnered Niall McShea to the FIA Production Car world title last year, will replace Damien Connolly in the German's M-Sport Focus RS.
* Ex-Ford driver Mikko Hirvonen will drive a privately-entered 2003-specification Focus RS. The Finn is joined by fellow countryman Kristian Sohlberg and reigning Norwegian champion Thomas Schie in privately-entered Focus RS cars. Jouni Ampuja has withdrawn his Focus RS after a heavy crash on last weekend's Arctic Rally in Finland and will be replaced by Finn Juuso Pykalisto, who will drive the Focus RS he used to win that event.
The rally base is again in Karlstad, which hosts Thursday evening's start ceremony. However, the action will be based around the central service park at Hagfors, 80km north, with competitors returning to Varmland's capital city each evening. To ensure the best chance of true winter conditions, most stages are located north of Hagfors. However, the most northerly, the 52km Granberget, which was the longest stage in the championship, has been dropped. There are 11 different stage venues, with all but two being used twice, and just one test that is new. The spectacular sprint stage around a ski arena on the edge of Hagfors itself is used at the end of the opening two legs. Competitors will face 359.87km of competition in a route of 1748.12km. The second leg is the longest with 139.53km of action.