ahead of Portugal rally
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team begins the second quarter of its FIA World Rally Championship campaign in Portugal next week with subtle improvements to its record-breaking Focus RS World Rally Car. As the series heads to the Iberian Peninsula for Rally de Portugal (2 - 5 April), the British-based squad will introduce a revised engine for the first time in competition.
The newly-homologated power plant available to drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila includes an electric water pump and a lightweight flywheel. During a comprehensive testing programme, the drivers have reported a slight improvement in outright engine performance from the upgrades.
This fourth round of the 12-event championship marks a return to the calendar for one of the sport's classic events after a year's absence and heralds the start of the gravel element of the season in earnest. Traditionally based on Portugal's west coast, the event was reborn in the WRC in 2007 in the Algarve holiday region in the south. It is based on the edge of Faro and the speed tests in the hills above the town blend fast, open roads with more technical sections on hard tracks, which are abrasive in the dry.
Hirvonen, who lies second in the drivers' standings after three podium finishes in the opening three rounds, was fifth in 2007 and the 28-year-old Finn was encouraged by his performance on gravel during the second and third legs in Cyprus earlier this month.
"I'm confident of matching the pace I showed then because my speed, especially on the drier sections, gave me plenty of belief for the gravel events to come. The engine upgrades are another step forward. Although the nature of the regulations means huge steps forward are impossible to achieve, there is more power and a bit more response and that will all help," he said.
"They are enjoyable stages to drive and Portugal is the rally I like most in the southern Europe and Mediterranean regions. The roads will be abrasive if conditions are dry because some sections have a solid bedrock base with a sandy surface on top. You don't see many loose rocks compared to Greece and Turkey, but the hard base does make it hard for tyres," he added.
Latvala was eighth two years ago and the 23-year-old is relishing a series of seven consecutive gravel events. "The start to the season was tough, and the rallies in Ireland and Cyprus were probably the most difficult I will face this year. Now we start the gravel events which comprise the bulk of the championship and I'm happy about that. I've tested the new engine and while it's not always easy to feel small improvements behind the wheel, I'm sure we will see them in our times," he said.
"The road surface is very abrasive and hard for the tyres, but it gives good grip. The tracks aren't rough and the stages contain a mix of narrow sections and wider areas. It's important to be careful on the exit of corners because there are often small trees on the outside waiting to catch a driver who slides wide so keeping the driving line precise is crucial," added the Finn.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive a third Focus RS WRC for the team. Al Qassimi has finished in the points on both his outings this season and this will be the 37-year-old's debut in Portugal. "Tackling a rally for the first time is always a difficult challenge. It takes time to understand the characteristics of the roads and a driver is always at a disadvantage against rivals who have previous experience. It's important to make the most of the opportunity and drive all the stages. An early retirement on either of the first two days can mean missing well over a third of the rally's distance and that's a lot of experience to miss out on," said Al Qassimi.
* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide BP Ford Abu Dhabi with just the one regulation tyre pattern. The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in hard compound only. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* The team's drivers are undertaking a four-day pre-event test in the Extremadura region of Spain this week. Latvala began yesterday (Thursday) and drives for the opening two days before Hirvonen takes over tomorrow for the final two days.
* Seven 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 / Jose Diaz are nominated by the Munchi's Ford team. Dutch father and son team Peter Van Merksteijn / Hans van Goor and Peter Van Merksteijn Junior / Eddy Chevaillier will drive 2007 and 2006-specification cars respectively while fellow countrymen Rene Kuipers / Erwin Berkhof and Dennis Kuipers / Kees Hagman will pilot 2006 cars. The rally also marks the opening round of the Fiesta SportTrophy International with six cars entered.