WRC leader Ford bids to keep heat on rivals in snowy Sweden Rallye Monte Carlo winner Ford takes its FIA World Rally Championship lead to the Scandinavian winter next week when the Swedish Rally (2 - 5 February) presents the team with a rapid ...
WRC leader Ford bids to keep heat on rivals in snowy Sweden
Rallye Monte Carlo winner Ford takes its FIA World Rally Championship lead to the Scandinavian winter next week when the Swedish Rally (2 - 5 February) presents the team with a rapid opportunity to build on its victorious start to the season. As Finns, opening round winners Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will feel comfortable in the snow and ice which makes this one of the most specialised rounds of the year.
Both will drive the 2006-specification Ford Focus RS World Rally Car which won on its first full competitive outing in the French Alps earlier this month to power Gronholm and the BP-Ford World Rally Team into the lead of the drivers' and manufacturers' standings. Both tested in Sweden before Christmas, the first time either had climbed behind the wheel of the new car.
Central Sweden's numbing cold and barren, ice-bound countryside traditionally provides the harshest environment of the season and a cruel contrast to the glitz of Monte Carlo. It is also a rally that suits the northern Europeans and only one-non-Nordic driver has won in the 43-year history of the event.
It is the only pure winter rally of the 16-round series, but still one of the fastest and the winner's average speed topped 111kph in 2005. The fast, flowing, frozen roads are a drivers' delight and BFGoodrich's skinny tyres fitted with tungsten-tipped steel studs will bite into the icy surface to provide incredible grip on the Focus RS cars. The Varmland region is reported to have plenty of snow with temperatures several degrees below freezing - the type of weather that should provide classic Swedish Rally conditions.
It is Gronholm's favourite rally, and one that he was won three times from 13 starts, and he would love nothing more than to celebrate his 38th birthday on the winners' podium on Sunday afternoon. "There's no doubt, the best way to celebrate my birthday would be with champagne on the winner's podium, but we have a lot of work to do before I can think about that," he said. "Sweden is the best rally in the championship when the conditions are good. To drive flat out on the snow and ice with such good grip from the studded tyres is really enjoyable. The car seems to float across the surface.
"It's not so different driving on snow and ice compared with gravel. On the longer stages it is important to look after the tyres because if the studs start to pull out or move around, then you have to ease the pace. I had a good feeling with the Focus RS in the test and I hope to regain that during the shakedown ahead of the start on Thursday morning," he added.
The cold weather should ensure that the frozen snow banks which line the forest tracks are there to provide a safety net for drivers. Drivers often 'lean' their cars into them to guide them around corners at maximum speed.
"I don't try to use them that much but when you enter a corner too fast they can be a help. The problem is that a driver can't rely on them. If temperatures aren't cold enough to freeze the snow properly, instead of bouncing off the banks, cars can be dragged into the snow or plough through them and off the road," added Gronholm.
This will be Hirvonen's fourth start in Sweden and the 25-year-old is confident of a strong result. "I really enjoy this event and I will push hard from the start," he said. "I think it's possible to fight for a podium. If there is fresh snow overnight on Thursday, then we have an excellent start position for Friday. It will allow the new snow to be cleared off the road and give us a cleaner drive.
"In winter conditions a driver can afford to let the tyres do more of the work than on gravel. You can slide the car more than and the studs are so good that in some places the grip is just as good as on a loose gravel surface," added Hirvonen.
* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force ice tyres in Sweden. The single type of tread pattern is available with normal studs for full ice conditions and short studs for ice and frozen gravel.
* The team completed a three-day rough gravel test at Chateau Lastours in southern France following the Rallye Monte Carlo. Hirvonen covered 450km over three days, the first time the Finn has sampled the new Focus RS WRC on gravel. He concentrated on reliability work.
* The privately run Stobart-VK-M-Sport Ford Rally Team has entered three 2004-specification Focus RS WRCs. Britain's Matt Wilson / Michael Orr and Finns Kosti Katajamaki / Timo Alane will be nominated for manufacturer points while Argentines Luis Perez Companc / Jose Maria Volta will drive a third car. Norway's Thomas Schie / Goran Bergsten will be behind the wheel of a 2003 Focus RS. Estonian driver Jaan Molder and Germany's Katrin Becker will drive a Ford Fiesta Super 1600 on what is the opening round of the FIA Junior World Rally Championship.
The rally follows a similar format to 2005 with all three legs based around the single service park of Hagfors, 80km north of the rally base in Karlstad, Varmland's capital city. The major difference is that although the start ceremony and finish remain in Karlstad, the overnight parc ferme will be in Hagfors. All stages except one will be used twice and there will be no new tests, although several have slightly modified routes from 2005. Both opening days end with the near-40km Vargåsen test, the longest of the rally, and a sprint test at Hagfors ski stadium. Drivers face 19 stages in total covering 349.02km in a route of 1441.16km.