Ford’s Finns bid to end Focus rally career on high note in Wales
Wales Rally GB - Preview
The record-breaking Ford Focus RS World Rally Car will end a memorable 12-year world rally career in Britain next week. BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen aim to provide a fitting farewell at Rally GB (11 - 14 November) for the car that has won two manufacturers’ world titles and 44 rallies.
Latvala has set his sights on a podium position in the FIA World Rally Championship drivers’ standings, while Hirvonen has nothing less than victory as his target on this 13th and final round of the 2010 season. Whatever the outcome, the rally will provide a fond farewell to the current generation of cars, as a new formula for 2011 means the Focus RS WRC will be replaced by the all-new Ford Fiesta RS WRC.
The Cardiff-based rally is one of the sport’s classics. High-speed gravel forest roads in mid- and south Wales account for the bulk of the competitive distance. However, this year’s event will also feature a challenging mixed asphalt and dirt speed test, which includes a sealed surface section across the dauntingly difficult Epynt military ranges.
Unpredictable weather is traditionally the rally’s toughest challenge. Tree-lined sections high in the hilly forests contrast with wide-open stretches and while snow is unlikely, ice and fog could be threats. In gloomy conditions, fog hangs between the trees, while also throwing a white blanket across exposed areas on higher ground. Rain is also possible, and the gravel tracks can quickly turn to mud as grip becomes increasingly inconsistent.
Latvala is in the midst of a three-way battle for the runners-up position. The 25-year-old Finn is 11 points behind second-placed Sébastien Ogier and five clear of Petter Solberg, with a maximum 25 points available. He has more experience of this rally than his home event in Finland, having started his career in Britain in 2002, aged just 17. He has eight previous starts to his name, with a best finish of second in 2008.
"At the start of the season I privately set a target to finish in the top three of the championship," he explained. "I’m third and have a chance to take second, so I need a strong result in Wales. I started my career in Britain and my first world rally was here, so Rally GB is like a second home event for me.
"Conditions during the last three years were extreme with heavy rain in 2007 and 2009 and ice in 2008 that caused much of the opening leg to be cancelled. Ice is the worst. It can lurk on the surface under the trees, and if the car hits a patch of ice all a driver can do is hope the grip returns before it slides off the road. Confidence is important. When you start to be afraid of the weather and hesitate, you lose a lot of time. You need to be brave and put your trust in the pace notes," he added.
Hirvonen also has plenty of Rally GB experience, with seven starts to his name. He won in 2007 and, after a difficult season, wants to celebrate the final rally for the Focus RS WRC with victory.
"To end the car’s career with a win and take the final victory of the World Rally Car era would be fantastic," said 30-year-old Hirvonen. "The problem is that every driver has the same thought! The championship titles are settled and so everyone can drive for victory. Even those contesting second and third in the drivers’ points will have to drive hard, so I expect a good battle.
"The weather can make this a tricky rally, and it could be even more so this year with a long asphalt section on Epynt. If it’s wet and muddy that road could be treacherous. The early cars will drag dirt onto the surface and make it even more slippery for those behind. In fact the driver that is first in the start order will do his best to pull as much gravel and mud onto the asphalt as he can. But the grip level is always inconsistent in Britain at this time of the year. It’s another challenge," he added.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive the team’s third car in Al Qassimi’s third GB start. "This weekend will be the biggest few days of motorsport ever for Abu Dhabi. Not only will I be competing in Wales, but the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be taking place over the same weekend. All Emirati eyes will be on the Welsh gravel and the Abu Dhabi tarmac and I am hoping for another strong performance. We go to Wales in high spirits after a great performance in Spain, and I hope to end the season with another strong performance and more points," he said.
— Tyre partner Pirelli will provide BP Ford Abu Dhabi with one regulation tyre pattern. The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in soft compound only, one of just three rounds in which soft gravel rubber is used. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spare wheels.
— The team has a two-day test planned in preparation for the rally. Latvala will drive today (Friday) and Hirvonen will take to the wheel on Monday. Both days will take place in north-west England, close to M-Sport’s Dovenby Hall base.
— Six other Focus RS WRCs are entered. Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin and Henning Solberg / Stéphane Prévot are nominated in the Stobart M-Sport Ford team, which has also entered Liu Chao Dong / Anthony McLoughlin. Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino and private entrants Rene Kuipers / Erwin Berkhof and Peter Stephenson / Dai Roberts make up the remainder. The S-WRC series also ends in Britain and there are six Fiesta S2000 cars entered, while the destination of the Fiesta SportTrophy International title will also be resolved.
Although the competition is again split between the forests of mid- and south Wales, there are significant changes to this year’s route. A new asphalt special stage near the service park in Cardiff Bay launches the rally on Thursday evening and is repeated on Saturday night. Friday’s leg again visits the classic Hafren and Myherin tests in mid-Wales, with a brief 15-minute service in Builth Wells splitting two loops of the same roads. Saturday is the longest leg with two new stages and an 11km asphalt section on the Epynt military ranges in mid-Wales as part of a 25.14km mixed surface stage, near Brecon. The final day in the south and includes a revised version of the famous Resolfen test in the Vale of Neath. Drivers tackle 20 stages covering 344.96km in a route of 1541.82km.
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