Ford aim for back-to-back WRC wins
- 7th June 2009, 7:20pm
Following victory for Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila and second place for Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen across the Mediterranean Sea in Sardinia last month, the team heads to Greece full of confidence. However, both pairings know that the challenges posed by the Acropolis will be greater than any encountered in the opening six rounds.
Success in Greece demands a blend of strength, reliability and speed. Rocky mountain tracks and punishing heat are the hallmarks of a rally that offers a new-look for 2009 but will doubtless maintain its traditional characteristics. It is a trial in which the record-breaking Ford Focus RS World Rally car has excelled, with six wins during the last nine seasons.
The gravel speed tests west of Athens have a fearsome reputation. Cars must withstand severe punishment from loose rocks which litter the surface of the mountain tracks, as well as bedrock which forms the base of the roads. Temperatures are likely to be well above 30ÂºC, placing high demands on engines and gearboxes. Because the winding, climbing roads and many hairpin bends make this a relatively slow rally (only Turkey was slower in 2008), there is little cooling from the flow of air.
Drivers and co-drivers can expect a tough weekend for the same reasons. There is no cooling inside the cars during special stages so cockpit temperatures are high and fitness plays a crucial role. Regular fluid intake is vital to stave off dehydration and ensure the crew operates at peak performance.
This will be the sixth Acropolis start for 28-year-old Hirvonen, who finished third in both 2006 and 2008, so the Finn has plenty of experience of what lies ahead.
"Conditions are likely to be very similar to Sardinia, but rougher," he said. "There are so many new stages this year that it's almost like tackling a new rally. I seem to do well on new rallies, so I hope the same is true here. Acropolis is so tough that it's probably the only event in the season where a driver must think seriously about protecting the car. It's still flat out all the way, but I must be careful where I brake and give some thought to looking after the tyres.
"I feel the heat most before stage starts, both when I'm changing tyres and also sitting in the car with my seat belts and helmet on, waiting for three or four minutes to start a stage. There is no air getting into the car. On the stages themselves air comes into the car, and I'm so concentrated on driving and listening to Jarmo reading the pace notes that it doesn't feel so bad," added Hirvonen.
Latvala has five previous starts to his name and the 24-year-old Finn is bursting with confidence after his win in Sardinia. "This is the toughest and roughest round of the WRC," he said. "After winning in Sardinia, I want to fight for another win in Greece. But the most important thing is to start steadily, rather than at full attack, and monitor the pace of the others. That's the clever way to do it. It will also be interesting to see what advantage might be gained from road position. I have a good start position on Friday but I won't know until the recce just how much gravel there is on Saturday's new stages.
"There are many new roads and it will be important to stay concentrated during the recce when we make our pace notes. Greece isn't a fast rally compared with Finland, for example, and it's easier to make notes when the roads are faster than when they are slower. On slower roads there is a temptation to put in too much information, whereas on faster roads there is less detail. It's important to learn how to handle the heat before the rally. I will go for a run or for a cycle ride to get used to it. Staying inside, away from the sunshine in the air conditioning, is the wrong way to do it," he added.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive a third Focus RS WRC. Greece was not part of their programme but they will now contest this event instead of Rally Poland. "The weekend is huge for Abu Dhabi motorsport. While my eyes will be firmly focused on the gravel roads in Greece, my thoughts will also be with our fellow Abu Dhabi teams competing in the Red Bull Air Race and F1 Powerboat Championships in Canada and Finland. We endured a huge amount of bad lack in Sardinia and I hope similar conditions in Greece will be kinder to us. It's a great chance to challenge for points because we were actually rallying very well in the same conditions in Sardinia," 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.
* 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 / JosÃ© Diaz are nominated by the Munchi's Ford team.
* Latvala last weekend drove his privately-entered Mk2 Ford Escort RS1800 to victory in Finland's Lahti Historic Rally, fifth round of the FIA European Historic Rally Championship. Latvala is a huge fan of rallying's history but had never driven an Escort, one of the sport's most successful cars, in competition. Partnered by Asko Sairanen, he won the two-day rally by 1min 15.4sec after 12 stages covering 126km. "I lost second and third gears on the opening stage but because Finnish roads are so fast I was able to use first gear for junctions and fourth and fifth for the other sections," said Latvala.
After three years in Athens, the rally moves 80km west to Loutraki for its new home and the new-look route sees the return of some classic Acropolis stages. After Thursday evening's start at the famous Corinth Canal, Friday's action heads north around the Gulf of Corinth to tackle well-known stages near Livadia and Itea, which hosts a brief 15-minute service break in early afternoon. Saturday's route takes competitors into the Peloponnese region, a traditional Acropolis venue during the 1980s, for all-new stages. Sunday's final leg, the shortest of the rally, heads north and east of Loutraki and includes two passes over the demanding 33.00km Aghii Theodori. The rally finishes in Loutraki after 17 stages covering 371.02km in a route of 1208.18km. Only one test remains unchanged from 2008.
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