offers fresh challenge for Ford drivers
Mastering the art of driving flat out over Cyprus' winding asphalt roads using gravel tyres is the stern challenge facing BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team next week. While the Cyprus Rally (12 - 15 March) offers the first opportunity this year for the FIA World Rally Championship contenders to find their feet on gravel, it is the asphalt mountain speed tests that offer a step into the unknown for drivers.
The opening day's action takes place on asphalt before switching to boulder-strewn gravel tracks for the final two legs as the Mediterranean holiday island hosts the WRC's first mixed-surface rally since 1996. Add into the mix rules that state drivers must tackle the sealed surface speed tests using Pirelli's gravel tyres rather than asphalt rubber to restrict costs, and it is not difficult to see why this third round of the 12-event championship could be one of the toughest of the campaign.
Sections of the asphalt special stages were tackled in gravel form several years ago but will be new in this format to Ford drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, while team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila have never competed in Cyprus.
Strength and reliability will be crucial once the rally moves into the Troodos Mountains, high above the rally base in the resort of Limassol, for the second and third legs. The gravel roads there are notoriously rough and cars must be capable of withstanding a heavy battering from rocks. The tracks are also incredibly twisty and speeds are lower than anywhere else in the championship. On its last appearance in the series in 2006, the rally was won at an average of only 67.45kph.
The Ford Focus RS World Rally Car they will drive has earned an awesome reputation in arduous conditions with two previous victories in Cyprus to its credit. The rally was previously held later in the season when baking temperatures made conditions even more challenging for man and machine, but early spring, a time when the mountains come alive with colour, should be far more bearable.
Hirvonen, starting in Cyprus for the fourth time, finished third in 2006, and the 28-year-old Finn admits it will be strange when he looks at his Focus RS WRC in low ride height asphalt specification but with Pirelli's gravel tyres fitted. "It's going to be difficult but a lot depends on how hot it is. The temperatures during our test were about 10ºC and the tyres worked well. The car moves around more on gravel rubber and it's necessary to turn into corners earlier and to brake sooner. It's difficult to predict what will happen because we've never had to do this but I'm ready for the challenge," he said.
"I found a good set-up for the gravel stages during the test. The stages in Cyprus are so twisty that there are sections where a driver thinks he's going too slowly. But to push too hard risks the car sliding wide and losing momentum. It's important to be patient and believe that other drivers are having just the same thoughts. It's said a lot, but this rally is unique in the championship," he added.
Latvala took the opportunity to sit alongside Hirvonen during the gravel section of the team's test last month. "Normally I don't get the opportunity to do that. Mikko has a different driving style to me and in tight corners he brakes differently. He uses the handbrake to get round corners and I don't. Mikko also keeps the car much straighter than I do. I drive more aggressively but that's something I'm trying to change," said the 23-year-old Finn.
"Cyprus is the only rally in the WRC calendar on which I've not competed. It's three months since the last gravel event in Britain so my test was a good opportunity to get a feel for the surface again. It's a technical rally and asphalt driving with gravel tyres will be a new challenge, the kind of thing that makes this sport so fascinating. I learned on the test that I must still use my asphalt technique and keep the car straight with precise lines. Too much sideways driving will destroy the tyres," he added.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive a third car on the Abu Dhabi driver's second WRC appearance there. "The terrain changes dramatically. It's a difficult rally that is tough on the cars with so many rocks, so I'm looking forward to the challenge. If I can carry a good pace with no problems and maintain my concentration levels and momentum, I'm confident of doing a good job. The team has prepared well and Mikko and Jari-Matti completed good mileage in testing," said Al Qassimi.
* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide BP Ford Abu Dhabi with just the one regulation tyre pattern to cover both the asphalt and gravel legs. The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in hard compound for both surfaces. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spare wheels. To offset concerns about tyre wear an additional two tyres will be available for each crew in the refuel area after the opening stage of the asphalt leg.
* The team has left nothing to chance after completing more than 1250km during a marathon six-day test in the south of Sardinia in preparation for the Cyprus Rally. Both drivers completed one day on asphalt and two days on gravel. Latvala covered 240km on the sealed surface and 370km on the loose while Hirvonen tackled 220km on asphalt and 430km on gravel.
* Three other Focus RS WRCs will start. Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud and Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are nominated by the Stobart VK M-Sport squad, while Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc will make their season debut for the Munchi's Ford team.
* Mikko Hirvonen joined Ford's media drive appraisal programme during the launch of the all-new Focus RS road car in France. He spent two days with German and Austrian journalists last week and two days with media from Spain and Portugal this week.