Tour de Corse: Ford preview

Rallye de France - Tour de Corse Ford takes test improvements into Corsica rally As the FIA World Rally Championship switches from the snow of Sweden to the never-ending twisty roads around the Mediterranean island of Corsica, Ford Rallye...

Rallye de France - Tour de Corse
Ford takes test improvements into Corsica rally

As the FIA World Rally Championship switches from the snow of Sweden to the never-ending twisty roads around the Mediterranean island of Corsica, Ford Rallye Sport's drivers have been hard at work preparing for the first of two consecutive asphalt rallies. An eight-day sealed surface test in Spain was timed perfectly in readiness for the Tour de Corse (8 - 10 March) as the team looks to maintain its impressive start to the season after strong points finishes on the opening two rounds.

The test confirmed improvements to the team's Ford Focus RS World Rally Car in the set-up of the suspension and differential systems as well as electronic engine mapping. Some will be introduced for the third round on the notorious mountain roads of Corsica while others will wait until later in the month on round four in Spain.

Third place on each of the first two rounds for Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya and strong points finishes for team-mates Colin McRae and Nicky Grist place Ford Rallye Sport in second position in the manufacturers' standings. Sainz holds third in the drivers' series with McRae sixth.

This year's rally has moved forward from its usual date in October but the weather high in the mountains will be just as unpredictable, placing an increased emphasis on tyre selection. Dry roads and warm sunshine on one side of a col can switch to dark clouds and streaming wet asphalt over the summit - conditions guaranteed to make life far from easy for drivers and engineers from tyre partner Pirelli.

Sainz has an impressive record on the island. Victory in 1991 and five other podium finishes means the 39-year-old Spaniard knows the secret to success there. "The route has changed a lot in the last couple of years," he said. "The rally no longer heads north up the middle of the island and so there are more repeated stages and less variety. It's less interesting to repeat the same stages but they are still similar in character to those we used in the Corte area - narrow with constant twists and turns.

"The Focus I tested is definitely an improvement and I feel more optimistic about driving this car on asphalt than previously. I think rain would assist us because in those conditions all the leading cars will be more closely matched," added Sainz.

McRae, too, has a solid background in Corsica with victories in 1997 and 1998. "We've made improvements on the test, particularly with the suspension geometry," said the 33-year-old Scot. "It's not a big step but rally cars nowadays are so evenly matched that it's impossible to make the same huge leaps forward that were possible 10 years ago. We'll have some new parts on the car in Corsica and it's only once the rally starts that we'll see what the improvements mean in terms of time.

"Pirelli brought new rubber to the test which we'll use on the rally so that's another unknown factor for us. The Focus RS / Pirelli package worked well in wet conditions on the opening round in Monte Carlo and I think rain in Corsica will provide us with the best opportunity to challenge for a podium finish," added McRae.

Ford Rallye Sport team-mates Markko Martin and Michael Park will be making only their second start in Corsica, sixth place there last year representing an impressive debut. The 26-year-old Estonian driver is full of confidence following the test.

"I'm 100 per cent happier with the Focus," he said. "It felt a very different car from the one I used in Monte Carlo and I hope I can carry that feeling into the rally. The driveability seems so much better and the Focus is a strong car in the wet so if we have those conditions I know we can do well.

"I worked with our technical director, Christian Loriaux, when we were both at another team last year and I'm happy he is with us at Ford. We understand each other well and it makes it much easier to develop a car when you have the experience of doing the same thing together on another car," he added.

Francois Duval and Jean-Marc Fortin will take another step in their career development when they drive the Focus RS on asphalt in competition for the first time. The 21-year-old Belgian driver excelled on his Focus debut to finish 10th in unfamiliar conditions in Sweden last month. In Corsica he will have greater freedom to attack on a surface he likes. "We scored a good result in Sweden but I'm really looking forward to Corsica," he said. "I've been waiting to drive the Focus competitively on asphalt for a long time and hopefully we can produce a result that will surprise people."

In The Spotlight

The Tour de Corse is a rally that puts the spotlight on Ford Rallye Sport's behind-the- scenes team members. The weather amid the craggy rock faces can vary widely, creating dilemmas over tyre selection for the team and Pirelli's tyre engineers located at the coastal service park. Sending out a 300bhp rally car fitted with dry weather rubber to tackle rain-soaked mountain special stages is asking drivers to complete a task similar to attempting to juggle wet bars of soap.

So advance information of the conditions is vital. To ensure the most up to date information the team will use the services of three expert 'weather crews', who are placed in strategic positions in the mountain stages to relay details back to the service area. From their location the crews will gather data, including rainfall, wind strength and direction, temperature and road conditions, all relayed to the team by coded radio transmission.

This allows informed decisions to be made as to what tyres will be best suited for stages that may not start for another two hours. During that time conditions in the mountains can be the exact opposite to those in the relative calm of the service park by the coast.

Rally Route

The route is virtually identical to last October's event with just one stage, the 36.73km test from Petreto to Ampaza, being run in the opposite direction to 2001 on both the first and second legs. It is once again based around the Camp dell'Oro service park close to Ajaccio's airport and the opening leg runs north-east and south-east of the island's principal town. The second day, the longest of the event with almost 155km of stages, is primarily based to the north with the short final leg to the south. The route covers just eight tests, each run twice, and drivers face 396.28km of stages in a total distance of just 938.03km. It is so compact that more than 42% of the rally route is competitive.

- frs-

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