Focus RS asphalt racer seeks to tame rugged Corsican roads Just 11 days after closing in on the lead of the FIA World Rally Championship in Spain, the BP-Ford World Rally Team will face up to another asphalt showdown on the opposite side of the...
Focus RS asphalt racer seeks to tame rugged Corsican roads
Just 11 days after closing in on the lead of the FIA World Rally Championship in Spain, the BP-Ford World Rally Team will face up to another asphalt showdown on the opposite side of the Mediterranean. The Rallye de France (6 - 9 April), based on the craggy island of Corsica, is regarded as the classic sealed surface event in the 16-round series and will provide another opportunity for the Focus RS World Rally Car to display its blistering asphalt pace.
Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen won 10 of the 16 speed tests on round four in Spain. The Corsican roads are very different in their characteristics but having excelled on both asphalt outings this season, BP-Ford feels confident going into this 50th anniversary event of improving on second in the manufacturers' standings.
The narrow, long and twisty special stages on the western side of the island will demand precision driving from BP-Ford's Finnish line-up. The roads are hard enough to master, but the unpredictable weather in the mountains adds an extra challenge and places additional demands on teams.
The rally has moved forward from October but the weather in early April is notoriously changeable, with the mountainous terrain and island location adding to the unpredictability. Dry roads and warm sunshine can quickly turn to torrential rain and streaming asphalt and vice-versa. It places huge importance on the accuracy of weather reports and forecasts from team personnel stationed in the mountains - key factors in the tyre selection which can turn the rally for or against a driver.
This event, famously known as The Rally of 10,000 Corners, has evolved considerably in the past decade. Incredibly twisty sections, which follow the contours of a mountain around the rock face on one side with huge drops into the sea on the other, are less frequent. And some roads, which were often covered in broken asphalt that caused high tyre wear, have been resurfaced. However, the asphalt remains abrasive, providing good grip but requiring hard-wearing tyres.
Thirty-eight-year-old Grönholm, who lies second in the drivers' championship, will start Corsica for the seventh time. Second in 2002 is his best result and his desire to improve on that in what could turn out to be a head-to-head battle with 2005 winner and French hero Sébastien Loeb is clear.
"We proved in Spain that we have the right package to match Loeb on asphalt," he said. "I'm really excited about being able to fight with him in Corsica, even though it is his home event and he knows the roads well. I feel happier on the Corsican stages than on the roads in Spain. They are more like rally stages than a race circuit.
"As ever in Corsica we must keep a careful eye on the weather. It is an island so things can change quickly and it is easy to be caught out on the wrong tyres because the weather in the mountains is different to that in the service park. One mistake in tyre selection can ruin an otherwise excellent rally. But we have experienced people in the team whose job it is too monitor the weather and help with tyre choice so we have the best advice," added Grönholm.
Hirvonen has a 100 percent finishing record from two starts in Corsica and believes he can fight for a podium in the Focus RS. "I expect to be as fast as we were in Spain and fight for a top three. But I also expect those drivers who were fast in Spain will be fast here. Corsica's stages are twisty all the time. I will need to find a different rhythm, one that is precise and tidy. It's not usually possible to cut corners because there are often brick walls and stones on the edge of the road," he said.
"The roads can be abrasive but if the weather conditions are consistent, I'm sure the BFGoodrich tyres will be perfect. Sometimes a driver has to look after his tyres to ensure they don't 'go off' but with the new Focus I've never had to do this. It's a combination of the car and the tyres. They both complement each other and I know I will be able to drive flat out without having to protect them," he added.
* BP-Ford will choose tyres from two different patterns. BFGoodrich's g-Force Profiler rubber is available in soft, medium and hard compounds for dry asphalt while the Profiler Humid pattern for wet roads is accessible in soft and medium compounds. If the rain is heavy, tyre engineers will carve additional cuts into the rubber of the Humid pattern. The grooves can be either longitudinal to combat aquaplaning, or lateral for extra braking and traction.
* The team today completes a four-day pre-event test for the Rally Argentina. Held in Sardinia, Grönholm drove the first two days with Hirvonen taking over for the final two. Both drivers concentrated on developing a set-up for their cars as well as testing some small improvements.
* The privately run Stobart-VK-M-Sport Ford Rally Team has entered two 2004-specification Focus RS WRCs. Britain's Matthew Wilson / Michael Orr and Finns Jari-Matti Latvala / Miikka Anttila will drive. The rally is also the second round of the Fiesta SportingTrophy International. Eight Fiesta STs will start.
The itinerary is virtually identical to 2005, with each leg comprising a morning loop of two stages which is repeated in the afternoon following service in the port area of Ajaccio. After a ceremonial start in the centre of Ajaccio on Thursday evening, Friday's opening leg is identical to last year on roads south-east of the town and is the longest of the event. Saturday's action takes competitors north of Ajaccio and includes a revised route for the opening stage of each loop. The last day is based south of the town and includes a stage last used in 2004. Drivers face 12 stages covering 355.16km in a route of 1044.24km. The event remains one of the most compact of the season with more than 34 per cent of the route being competitive.