The record-breaking BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team will aim to end the opening half of the FIA World Rally Championship season on a high note in Portugal next week. Victory in New Zealand earlier this month was Ford's 75th WRC success. Not only did it make the company the most successful manufacturer in the championship's history, but it also moved the squad to within five points of the lead in the 2010 standings.
Rally de Portugal (27 - 30 May) is the last of a cluster of five gravel rounds before the season switches to asphalt in July after the mid-season break. Following their New Zealand win, Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila lie second in the drivers' points table in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. Team-mates and fellow Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are third, eight points behind.
This sixth round of the series has a long history. Traditionally based on the west coast, in 2006 the rally was reborn in the Algarve holiday region in the south, with Faro as the base. The competition takes place in the hills above the town, blending fast, open roads with more technical sections on hard and abrasive tracks. The rally takes place two months later this year, with the prospect of higher temperatures, drier conditions and plenty of slippery loose gravel on the road surface.
This will be Hirvonen's third start in Portugal and the 29-year-old finished second last year. "It's a medium-fast rally and quite technical with plenty of corners over crests, so it's important to be precise with both pace notes and driving lines. Conditions look as if they will be hot and dry and that will be tough for the tyres. The roads have a hard base and on the second pass, once the loose stones have been swept away, the grip will be good, but abrasive, so we'll have to manage our tyres well," he said.
"New Zealand was disappointing for me and I need to rediscover my speed. I'm not even thinking about championship positions at the moment, I just want to go to Portugal and drive at the speed that I know I can. I've thought a lot about why I wasn't as quick as I had hoped in New Zealand and I believe I was simply pushing too hard. My mistakes came through attacking too much, so I plan to be a little less aggressive and try to let my driving flow normally," added Hirvonen.
Latvala is also competing in Portugal for the third time and the 25-year-old is full of confidence after his win in New Zealand. "I've developed a completely different attitude to my driving this season in my job as number two in the team. That role has helped me to understand the sport better. It's not only about being fastest, it's just as important for a driver to be consistent and finish rallies to fight for the title. It's working well, but I'm not 100 per cent there yet and I need to keep working," he said.Latvala crashed out of the 2009 rally in spectacular fashion, when his Focus RS WRC rolled more than 150 metres down a hillside in an incident which has been viewed nearly 800,000 times on the YouTube video sharing website. "That stage will be used again this year and when I drive through it during the recce I will slow down and take a quick look where we went off. I will be changing my pace notes for that corner! But I've put the crash behind me and I won't treat that stage any differently in the rally itself," he added. Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive a third Focus RS WRC for the team, returning to the championship for the first time since the opening round in Sweden. "I have been competing for Team Abu Dhabi in all rounds of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship for the last few months, so I am hopeful that the extra time behind the wheel on tough gravel and sand conditions will help give me an edge at Rally de Portugal. Last year Michael and I finished eighth and I am confident that I can either replicate or better that result this time round," said Al Qassimi. Team News * Tyre partner Pirelli will provide BP Ford Abu Dhabi with 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. * Six other Focus RS WRCs are entered. Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor and Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are nominated by the Stobart M-Sport Ford team, while Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc will drive for the Munchi's Ford squad. Monster World Rally Team has entered Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino and there are also privately-entered cars for Rene Kuipers / Erwin Berkhof and Laurent Carbonaro / Thierry Leon. The rally is the fifth round of the S-WRC support championship and five registered Ford Fiesta S2000 cars are entered, headed by leaders Xevi Pons / Alex Haro. It is also the second round of the Fiesta SportTrophy International, with six R2 and one ST models due to start. Twenty-four of the 75 entrants are competing in Ford cars, 31 per cent of the entry.* The team's Focus RS WRCs will carry logos supporting the FIA Foundation's Make Roads Safe campaign. The Foundation is calling for action to stop thousands of preventable deaths and injuries on the world's roads and earlier this year the United Nations approved a Decade of Action for Road Safety from 2011-2020. The logos will remain on the cars for the rest of the WRC season. Information on the campaign can be found at https://www.fiafoundation.org/our-work/road-safety
* Hirvonen tested a Focus RS WRC on asphalt for three days in England last week. The development session ahead of the four sealed-surface rounds of the championship in the second half of the season, was based at the Millbrook testing venue, in the south of the country. * Hirvonen and Lehtinen will attend the UEFA Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Inter Milan at Madrid's Bernabeu Stadium tomorrow (Saturday) night. Ford is the longest-serving official partner of Europe's most prestigious club football competition.
Rally Route The Algarve and Baixo Alentejo regions of Portugal's south coast remain the focus for the rally. There are few changes from last year and Estádio Algarve, built on the edge of Faro for the 2004 European Soccer Championships, is again the base. It hosts the single service park and a super special stage inside the arena starts the event on Thursday evening and brings it to a close on Sunday afternoon. The rest of the stages are based in the Serra do Caldeirão hills, north of Faro. Each leg comprises two identical loops of stages, split by a return to the service park. The roads differ little from last year, with just nine per cent of the route new and one stage on the opening day held in the opposite direction. Drivers tackle 18 stages covering 355.32km in a route of 1223.07km.