Catalunya - Ford World Rally Team - Preview
After a five-week break from competition, the Ford World Rally Team takes its FIA World Rally Championship lead to Spain for the first of two asphalt events on consecutive weekends that will go a long way towards deciding the outcome
of the 2007 titles.
The squad takes a 46-point advantage in the manufacturers' series and a 10-point lead in the drivers' standings to Rally de España (4-7 October) as the 16-round series approaches its decisive phase.
It is the first of five events in nine weekends in a hectic end-of-season flurry. After a year in the early part of the season in March, the rally has reverted to autumn and forms the first part of a double-header with the Rallye de France in Corsica the following weekend.
Having recently announced their retirement at the end of this season, championship leaders Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen are eager to end their glittering careers with a third world drivers' title. Both the Finns and team-mates and fellow countrymen Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are also aware of the importance of the two sealed-surface events as they aim to retain the manufacturers' crown for the Blue Oval with the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car.
This 12th round of the 16-rally championship is again based at Salou, on the Costa Daurada coast, south-west of Barcelona. The sweeping roads of the Tarragona region are smooth but can be highly abrasive.
The speed tests are the most flowing in the calendar and are more similar to a race circuit in their characteristics than any other round.
Drivers take massive cuts across the open corners, often placing virtually all the car onto the grass in an attempt to shave tenths of a second from their times. This drags dirt and stones onto the asphalt, making the special stages slippery for a second pass.
Grönholm has started in Spain on eight occasions, his best result coming in 2004 when he was second. The 39-year-old's determination to end his career on a high saw him fly to Britain for asphalt tuition on Monday from acclaimed coach and former FIA Endurance Touring Car champion Rob Wilson, before heading to Spain for Tuesday's recce.
"I've not worked with Rob before but Mikko has spent time with him and Malcolm regards him highly," said Grönholm. "I think it will help fine tune my asphalt driving and perhaps give me some small ideas where I can save a few tenths of a second. We'll look at areas like braking points and the entrance speed at corners so that I can accelerate harder and get more speed coming out of them."
Grönholm was the fastest driver in Spain in 2006, winning 10 of the 16 stages and leading on the first morning before turbo troubles cost time.
"I like the fast roads, they are like a race circuit in places. The most difficult aspect for me is the dirt that is pulled onto the roads during the first pass. It's slippery during the second run and, if they are not cleaned, also on those stages that are run in both directions because the dirt is then on parts of the road that you do not expect. That's where the work of the safety crews is important in driving the stages and alerting us to the awkward parts," he added.
Hirvonen has fond memories of the rally, claiming his first WRC podium with third place in a Focus RS in 2005. This will be his fifth start in Spain.
"That was one of the big results that really started things moving in my career," he said. "It proved I had the required speed on asphalt as well as loose surfaces. It's the fastest asphalt event in the championship and of all the four sealed surface rallies in the series, this is the one where I can be the most competitive. I would like to fight for a win here."
"The roads are fast and flowing and the surface is generally smooth. But there are also some quite sections and a lot of gravel and dirt becomes dragged onto the surface through drivers cutting corners. It's vital to be absolutely perfect in finding the right braking points and the correct line through the bends. On gravel it's easier to regain control by sliding the car if a mistake is made but on asphalt an error can prove more costly," added the 27-year-old Finn.
Abu Dhabi-backed Khalid Al Qassimi and Nicky Beech will pilot a third BP-Ford Focus RS on their third outing with the team.
"I'm looking forward to it," said 35-year-old Al Qassimi. "It's been quite a while since Rallye Deutschland but now I have one asphalt event under my belt, so I have a much better idea of how the car performs on that surface and can use the experience I gained in Germany to good effect. Once again, the objective is to gain as much experience as possible."
The rally takes place in the Holy Month of Ramadan, when the rhythm of life changes as Muslims are not permitted to eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. "However, Muslims who have to travel are excused from fasting, so long as they fast for the same number of days on their return. This means that I am able to eat and drink during the rally, making my involvement possible," he added.
The route is broadly similar to 2006 with the stages located in the Tarragona region, south of Barcelona. There are two new stages during the second leg and minor changes to two others but the remaining tests are identical to last year. The single service park at Salou's PortAventura theme park is also retained.
After Thursday evening's start ceremony in Salou, Friday's opening leg is the longest of the rally with 148.05km of competition. Saturday's second leg includes a double pass over Thursday's shakedown road but in the opposite direction. All tests except Friday's late afternoon stages are used twice. There are 18 stages in total covering 352.87km on a total route of 1359.96km.
Ford World Rally Team