poses new questions for Ford squad
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team steps into the unknown next week when it journeys to the Land of the Rising Sun for a new-look Rally Japan. This penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship is firmly established in the series. However, a new host city means that for the second time this season drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila will let loose their Focus RS World Rally Cars on unknown roads.
After four years in Obihiro, the rally moves west to Sapporo in the central region of Hokkaido, the country's most northerly island. It is based at the 43,000-capacity Sapporo Dome, a modern baseball and soccer stadium that hosted the 2002 World Cup. The dome also hosts five asphalt speed tests, the first time in WRC history that two cars run simultaneously on a super special stage in a covered arena.
All the special stages are new to the WRC but most of the countryside tests have been used for many years in Japan's national championship. Most are based on medium to high-speed gravel forest roads and organisers describe them as flowing with good visibility.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi tyre engineer George Black visited the stages after last year's rally and found them to be undulating. "Most are quite hilly and although they are not high, they are not really flat. They are reasonably quick but narrow and some are very loose. The surface is mostly a pebble type of gravel rather than quarried gravel, although some are compacted, almost like cobblestones, and quite slippery. One of the biggest features will be the carpet of leaves on the surface. All the roads were leaf covered last year and very wet," he said.
Reigning manufacturers' world champion BP Ford Abu Dhabi lies second in the 2008 standings and must realistically take maximum points to ensure the title fight goes to the final round in Britain in December. Similarly, Hirvonen holds second in the drivers' table and victory is essential. However, even a maximum 10-point haul may not be enough to take the battle into the final round.
The 28-year-old Finn has a strong record over roads new to the championship, winning in Norway in 2007 and triumphing in Jordan in April. He also claimed the top step of the podium in Japan in 2007, having finished third the previous year. "Last week's test went well and it was a good feeling to be back on gravel. I have to go to Japan and try to win again, it's the only thing I can do to try to keep the championships alive," he said.
"We need to be careful with the pace notes because the roads are narrow and fast. On the more open corners it will be important to check carefully for rocks to see if it will be OK to make cuts or not. It helps that everyone is competing on these roads for the first time because nobody has the advantage of previous experience.
"I enjoy making new notes and feel confident when I'm doing that. However, it's easy to slip up on new rallies, because we write the notes on the first pass during the recce and then check them just once on the second pass before driving the roads flat out. I've seen pictures of the stages but I don't know much more than that. There seems to be plenty of loose stones, a little like Australia but not to the same extent, and I understand the roads are narrow and soft in places," added Hirvonen.
Latvala returns to the official Ford line-up after driving a Focus RS WRC for the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford squad on the two asphalt rounds in Spain and Corsica. "I'm happy to be back on gravel but I enjoyed the last two days' driving in Corsica which boosted my confidence. I'm told these stages are fast and similar to the roads we drove when the rally was based in Obihiro. Perhaps they are slightly rougher and narrower," said the 23-year-old Finn, who will make his third start in Japan.
"Mikko and I have to try to take maximum points and keep the Citroens behind us. The recce is very important because everyone must write new pace notes. We have to be focused because otherwise it can affect the quality of the notes, and when they're not precise then it's difficult to trust them fully and to attack as much as normal. I was happy with my pre-event test in which I made good improvements to my dry weather suspension set-up," added Latvala.
* As part of the sport's new regulations, BP Ford Abu Dhabi will have just one tyre pattern from Pirelli. The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in soft compound only. Because anti-deflation mousse is also outlawed this year, the Scorpion includes reinforced sidewalls to offer increased protection against punctures. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spares.
* The team completed a successful four-day gravel test in the south of France last week in preparation for Rally Japan and Rally GB. Hirvonen drove for the first two days with Latvala taking the wheel for the final two. The team was delighted with the test, making improvements to the Focus RS WRC's differential settings and suspension set-up.
* Four other Focus RS cars will start. Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin and François Duval / Patrick Pivato are nominated by the Stobart VK M-Sport squad while the Munchi's Ford team has entered Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc and Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud.