prepares hard for Spanish encounter
After a five-week break from competition, BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team returns to action in Spain next week for the first of two Mediterranean asphalt events on consecutive weekends that could go a long way towards deciding the 2008 FIA World Rally Championship titles. The team has prepared meticulously for Rally de España (2 - 5 October) and the subsequent Rallye de France in Corsica with back-to-back tests in both locations as the campaign enters its decisive phase.
The reigning manufacturers' world champion has also strengthened its driver line-up for the final sealed surface events of the season. Finland's Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, lying second in the drivers' standings, will be joined by acknowledged asphalt experts François Duval and Patrick Pivato in the record-breaking Focus RS World Rally Car. They will replace Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila, who will rejoin the squad for the final two rallies of the year in Japan and Britain.
This 12th round of the 15-rally championship returns for a fourth time to Salou, on the Costa Daurada coast, south-west of Barcelona. The sweeping roads of the Tarragona region are fast and flowing and can be compared to a race circuit in their characteristics. The asphalt is smooth but often abrasive, and can quickly become slippery as drivers cut across the open corners to shave tenths of a second from their special stage times and drag stones and dirt onto the surface.
The roads will become especially slippery for the second pass of stages in the afternoon after the whole entry has already tackled the morning speed tests. It places huge importance on the work of drivers' safety crews, who pass through the stages ahead of competitors. They note sections of road where conditions have changed and relay the information to co-drivers who modify their pace notes accordingly before starting the tests.
Hirvonen claimed his first WRC podium in Spain in 2005 in a privately-entered Focus RS WRC, a result that 'started things moving in my career'. "The rally seems to be faster and faster each year. The stages are smooth and the organisers seem to improve the roads every time we come. It's like driving on a race track and it's crucial to find the correct braking point and the right line through bends. We're second in both the manufacturers' and drivers' points so I need to try to beat Sébastien Loeb. That's going to be very difficult and there's no room for mistakes, everything has to be perfect," he said.
"This is the first time here with Pirelli's new asphalt tyres so I will try to be very precise with my pace notes during the recce. I need to make sure that if I note a corner that can be cut, there is nothing on the verge that can break the tyre. Last year organisers placed barrels and bales on the inside of some corners to prevent drivers taking so many big cuts," added 27-year-old Hirvonen, who has finished each of his five starts in Spain.
Duval's best finish in Spain came in 2005, when he held off Hirvonen to take second. The 27-year-old Belgian has seven previous starts to his name. "This isn't my favourite asphalt rally because the roads are fast and wide. I prefer stages that are narrow and tight. But that doesn’t alter my plan which is to try to take a podium. The 2008-specification Focus RS WRC is a big improvement over the 2007 version which I drove on asphalt earlier in the season, and if I can match the pace of Dani Sordo then I should be around the top three," he said.
"I would prefer dry conditions because I don't have any real experience of the 2008 car with Pirelli tyres in the wet. I was hoping for some rain in Spain during the test. The first couple of hours on the opening day were, damp which helped, but I still haven't driven the car in heavy rain," he added.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive a third official Focus RS WRC, having finished 14th on their Spanish debut last year. "I’m going to devise completely new pace notes because I'm now a year in to my WRC career and I feel I can push a little harder on asphalt. My new notes will be more accurate and allow me to go for more pace," said 36-year-old Al Qassimi.
"This will be my sixth asphalt event in just over a year but I'm still learning. Before I was just happy to be driving and competing, now I'm trying to get more pace out of the car. I'll focus on setting-up the car and then review my first day performance. If I feel I'm heading in the right direction, then I'll start lifting my pace," added Al Qassimi.
* As part of the sport's new regulations, BP Ford Abu Dhabi will have just one tyre pattern from Pirelli. The PZero asphalt tyre will be available in both hard and soft compound but there will be no other option for specific dry or wet weather rubber. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber in the event of heavy rain and each car can carry two spares.
* Seven other Focus RS cars will start. Jari-Matti Latvala / Miikka Anttila and Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are nominated by the Stobart VK M-Sport squad while Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc and Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud will drive for the Munchi's Ford team. Other privately-entered cars will be driven by Andreas Mikkelsen / Ola Floene, Peter Van Merksteijn / Erwin Berkhof and Peter Van Merksteijn Jr / Eddy Chevaillier. Six Fiesta ST cars are also entered for what is the penultimate round of the Fiesta SportingTrophy International.
* The team has completed two asphalt tests in the last week in preparation for the two asphalt events in Spain and Corsica. A three-day test in Corsica ended on Monday, each driver spending one-and-a-half days behind the wheel to concentrate on tyre work and car set-up. Duval, who tested first, covered more than 300km. This was followed by another three-day test which ends in Spain today. Duval again took the wheel first, with Hirvonen taking over for the final day-and-a-half.