Acropolis : Ford World Rally Team - Preview
Ford World Rally Team ends the first half of its 2006 campaign next week by taking on what is expected to be the toughest round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The Acropolis Rally of Greece (1 - 4 June) is one of the series'
classic events, which was voted the best in the 2005 championship, and a new format based around Athens' majestic Olympic Stadium ensures this eighth round is eagerly awaited.
The Ford Focus RS World Rally Car has an awesome record in Greece, where success demands strength, reliability and speed. Four consecutive victories from 2001 to 2003 earmarked the Focus as the dominant car on the Acropolis, an event characterised by intense heat and rock-strewn gravel speed tests. BP-Ford drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen know that they face a tough challenge to improve that record.
The decision to move to Athens from the previous base further north in Lamia means a return to roads not used for many years. BP-Ford's preparations included a visit to the special stages which contain sections which are extremely rough and rocky, the results of a harsh winter and the conditions around which the Acropolis built its fearsome reputation.
Add air temperatures which are expected to climb above 30˚C, with the relatively low-speeds offering little airflow and cooling to the engine, and the rally has the hallmarks of being one of the most gruelling for some time.
The Olympic Stadium, home to the 2004 Games, will be the new rally base. And a spectacular super special stage inside the stadium, which set new standards for the sport when held in front of a capacity 65,000 crowd for the first time in 2005, will this year start and finish the rally.
BP-Ford lies second in the manufacturers' standings after seven of the 16 rounds with Grönholm second in the drivers' points table. The 38-year-old Finn is an Acropolis veteran. This will be his eighth start, second place in 2002 his best result.
"I think I drove some of these old stages when I started the Acropolis for the first time in 1999," he said. "Some were quite rough but things may have changed since then, so until I drive the recce, it's hard to say what the conditions will be like. I'm looking forward to driving in the Olympic Stadium again. It looked so professional last year and I could really feel the atmosphere inside the car.
My retirement in Italy was disappointing but the pace of the car on the opening morning was so good. It surprised me because it was a disadvantage for Loeb to run first on the road in the loose gravel, but it wasn't that much better for me in second in the start order. I'm confident we can set the same kind of pace in Greece. The Focus has a strong history on this rally and it would be nice to add to its winning record," he added.
Hirvonen has competed three times before on the Acropolis. The 25-year-old Finn produced a stunning performance in 2005 at the wheel of a privately-entered Focus RS when he led on the opening leg before eventually finishing fifth.
"The stages will be new for everyone which will mean a hard recce preparing pace notes for the entire route," said Hirvonen. "We've been lucky because many rallies this year have contained new sections so we're used to making fresh notes. But it will be challenging to drive on different roads, many of which I'm told will be rough. In those conditions we must think about the correct set-up to protect the car. It's important to raise the ride height and stiffen the suspension but as we haven't seen the stages yet, it's all guesswork until the recce.
"After finishing second in Sardinia, I'm really excited about this rally. Despite the conditions, it's still a sprint rally so I will drive flat out from the start, but with an element of caution to avoid the rocks. Personally I feel well prepared. I stayed in Sardinia for two days to train in the heat and then I have two days' testing so I should be acclimatised to the high temperatures. The thing to remember is to keep drinking to replace the fluids you sweat out. Even when you think you can't drink any more, you have to keep drinking," he added.
The rally has undergone a complete facelift. Following the phenomenal success of last year's super special stage at Athens' Olympic Stadium, organisers have based the entire event there. The stadium will again host the opening action on Thursday evening with live television and an expected 65,000 capacity crowd, with a repeat of the 2.80km test bringing the rally to a close on Sunday afternoon.
Apart from the stadium tests, all the remaining stages are different to 2005. Some are completely new, while others have been used in a different format several years ago. The opening leg begins with a test on the very edge of Athens before heading north-west of the city.
The second, and longest, day is located to the west while the final day is based on roads already used but run in the opposite direction. Each leg comprises two loops of identical stages, split by service at the Olympic Stadium, with the super special added to the end of Sunday's itinerary. Drivers tackle 18 stages, which are at a lower altitude than in recent times and are hilly rather than mountainous, covering 355.62km in a route of 1279.29km.
Press release Ford World Rally Team