freeze out rivals in Norway
Ford heads to Rally Norway (12 - 15 February) bidding to emulate its performance during the country's only previous world championship appearance two years ago when Focus RS World Rally Cars claimed a clean sweep of the podium.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and fellow Finns Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are no strangers to success in snow. Hirvonen won in Norway's winter wonderland in 2007 and Latvala, who finished fifth then, became the youngest driver to win a round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Sweden last season.
Conditions are reported to be perfect for a true winter rally in the Kongsvinger and Lillehammer areas where the event's speed tests are based. The loose-surface tracks that host this second round of the 12-event series are covered with a thick layer of snow and ice and huge snow banks line the roads. With temperatures forecast to dip to -8ºC during the next week, there is no reason for that to change.
Despite the harsh environment of the frozen Norwegian countryside, BP Ford Abu Dhabi's drivers will find incredible grip in the snow and ice due to the effect of the tungsten-tipped studs protruding from Pirelli's tyres fitted to their Focus RS WRCs. The studs bite through the snow into the icy surface beneath to offer grip almost equivalent to driving on gravel, and drivers 'lean' their cars into the snow banks to guide them round corners at maximum speed.
However, the skinny tyres usually seen on the ice-bound roads have been replaced for 2009 by traditional width rubber (see Team News). Both Hirvonen and Latvala tested the new tyre for the first time in December, and 28-year-old Hirvonen was delighted with the Focus RS WRC's performance.
"The tyre felt extremely stable and the Focus seemed better under braking than on the narrower tyre we used previously," he said. "In normal winter conditions I believe we could be faster so I have no concerns about its introduction. Start order could play an important part because I think this new tyre will work best on cleaner roads, so drivers lower down the order could benefit. I let the tyres do more work on snow than on gravel and slide the car around a little more. It's not necessary to be quite as neat as on other surfaces and it's exciting to be in control of a car sliding sideways at top speed.
"I scored solid points on the first round in Ireland earlier this month and now I really want to get down to business on a rally and in conditions that I enjoy. In 2007 the stages were enjoyable, but at the same time they were extremely difficult. I recall one stage that I drove in a blizzard and that was the first occasion in which I had encountered conditions like that. Ireland was a difficult start to the year because of heavy rain and I'm sure I'll feel more comfortable in Norway's snow – conditions in which we know the Focus excels," added Hirvonen.
Twenty-three-year-old Latvala admits he enjoys driving on snow. "A proper winter rally is great fun," he said. "The nature of the surface means a driver can be a lot more aggressive. The car spends more time sideways on snow because it helps to turn into bends. Taking straight lines and relying on traction, as I do on gravel, doesn't work in snow because there isn't as much. So I must trust the tyres, which offer good grip, and use the snow banks to carry more speed and guide me round."
Latvala is distinctive at the wheel of his car on snow rallies by the trademark yellow glasses he wears during special stages. "When the countryside is totally white, it's often difficult to see exactly where the road goes. The yellow tinted glasses I wear provide more definition and help me to see the edge of the road more clearly. They really help me a lot," he explained.
* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide a new version of its Sottozero winter tyre, which will be available with 7mm studs to penetrate the snow and bite into the ice beneath. The tyre has been designed in a wider format than is usual for a winter pattern to enable teams to use it with the standard 15-inch wheel rims used on all other loose surface rounds of the championship. The tread blocks are spread slightly wider as a result. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber in the event of heavy snow and each car can carry two spares.
* Six other Focus RS WRCs will start. Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud and Urmo Aava / Kuldar Sikk are nominated by the Stobart VK M-Sport squad, which has also entered Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin. Dutch father and son team Peter Van Merksteijn / Erwin Mombaerts and Peter Van Merksteijn Jnr / Eddy Chevaillier have entered 2007 and 2006-specification cars respectively while Finns Jouni Arolainen / Tapio Suominen will be in a 2005 Focus RS WRC.
* For all 12 rallies this season the Focus RS WRCs of Hirvonen and Latvala is carrying extra in-car protection to help absorb energy in the event of an accident. The door panels have been filled with crash impact protection foam to soak up the energy from a side impact. Additional foam has been placed between the door and the seats to give further protection to the driver and co-driver.
As in 2007, the rally is based in Hamar, 125km north-east of Oslo. It hosts the main service park at the spectacular 9,000 capacity indoor Viking Ship stadium, built to host speed skating events during the 1994 Winter Olympics. The route is based in the same region as the previous edition, but more than 44 percent of the 360.90km of competition is new. The action begins with an all-new super special stage at a trotting track in Oslo on Thursday evening. The first full day in the forests of Kongsvinger, south-east of Hamar, uses opening leg tests from 2007, but most are in the opposite direction. The only opportunity for service during the day will be a 15-minute remote service zone in Kongsvinger. The second leg is centred to the north in the mountain region of Lillehammer, host city of the Olympics, but also includes a short test in Hamar itself. The final day is the longest and more than half is new, including the final stage at Hedmark mountain plateau which runs through a corridor of three-metre high snow walls. Drivers tackle 23 tests in a route of 1230.15km.