Acropolis - Stobart M-Sport Ford - Preview
Matthew Wilson and Henning Solberg head to Greece this week for the seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Acropolis Rally, hoping that the gods will be smiling on them as they look to maintain the Stobart M-Sport
Ford team's momentum in the championship.
With half of the season gone, the Stobart team have secured both driver and manufacturer points on every rally so far this year with the reliability of the Ford Focus RS WRC helping them to third place in the manufacturer standings.
And with both drivers on course for their best-ever finish in the drivers' championship, hopes are high that the form set in the first half of the year will continue.
After the high temperatures experienced in Sardinia last month the mercury is set to rise even higher in Greece. With the heat set to hit 45 degrees inside the car this is undoubtedly one of the most physically challenging events for the crews.
This year the rally has moved to the coastal town of Loutraki, 85km west of the Greek capital Athens after it won a country-wide contest to host the event. With 371.02km of gravel stages in the hills and mountains around the Gulf of Corinth, the ability to cope with the extreme temperatures rather than knowledge of the roads could count more towards the result.
Loutraki, with its vast natural springs and thermal spas, is a town well used to hosting large numbers of visitors, but thousands of fans are expected to turn out to catch a glimpse of the rally cars as they tackle one of the classic events on the WRC calendar.
Solberg and co-driver Cato Menkerud have a good record at the Acropolis Rally having finished fifth in Greece twice in recent years, although an electrical problem on the final day of last year's event robbed them of a podium finish.
Meanwhile Wilson and co-driver Scott Martin finished sixth last year, and as one of the fittest crews competing in the championship the young Brits should be well-placed to cope with the sweltering heat.
The rally is also set to be particularly hard on the Pirelli Scorpion control tyres as the effects of the rough, abrasive road surface are compounded by the sweltering heat.
It all kicks off with a spectacular ceremonial start on a bridge over the historic Corinth Canal on Thursday night before the 47 entrants head north the following morning to the Peloponnese region for 140.4kms of rough and twisty mountain stages. Some of these stages have been used on previous editions of the Acropolis Rally but much of the competitive terrain is new this time around.
There will be a remote service in the town of Itea providing an extra challenge for all of the teams as limited spares and only 15 minutes of servicing mean there won't be time for major repairs.
Day Two sees the crews head south to take on two passes of a three-stage loop covering 135.36km of winding stages where the rocky surface will provide a stern test for the cars and drivers.
However, one of the biggest challenges of the rally awaits the drivers on the final day as they face two passes over the longest stage of the event, the 33km Aghii Theodori test, which are included in the 95km final day before the drivers reach the finish ramp back in Loutraki.
"It's almost a totally new route although a couple of the stages will be familiar to some of the drivers from previous years so it's a new challenge for everyone. It's going to be another hot rally after the last one in Sardinia but we're prepared for the heat here so it shouldn't be too bad. I think that tyre wear is going to be a big issue. The roads that we know in Greece are very abrasive and we don't know how tough the new sections will be so that adds another challenge to the mix. Acropolis has been quite a good rally for me in the past. I finished sixth last year so I hope that we can build on that this year."
"Generally I like rough rallies and the Acropolis is no exception. It is always a big challenge and one of the toughest rallies of the year, but this time I'm really looking forward to it. We made some very positive changes in Sardinia and now I have a really great car; the feeling is better and I'm confident now that we can be on a good pace. We set fast times on the last day in Sardinia even when Seb (Loeb) and Petter (Solberg) were battling. I'm focused now on this rally and I really want to put in a strong performance for the second half of the year."
Team Principal Malcolm Wilson:
"Both Matthew and Henning have produced consistently strong results for the Stobart M-Sport Ford team in the first half of the season and will be looking to continue that good form in Greece. Conditions will be very tough on the cars and the drivers, but this is where Matthew's fitness will come to the fore as he will be well equipped to deal with the high temperatures thanks to the training that he has put in prior to the event. Henning has had some excellent results in Greece in the past and hopefully he can produce another good finish this year to help maintain the team's momentum in the manufacturer championship."