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Ford aims to end its official participation in the FIA World Rally Championship on a high note next week when the 2012 season comes to a close in Spain.  After the decision to stop its factory team at the end of the year, Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila and team-mates Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson have targeted a successful finale at Rally de España (8 - 11 November). 
Ford has already secured second in the manufacturers’ championship with the Fiesta RS World Rally Car.  The destination of the title and the runner-up placings in the drivers’ series have already been decided, but both Ford pairings are involved in a three-way battle for third.  Thirteen points cover the trio, with a maximum 28 available from Spain.
Rally de España is based in the Costa Daurada holiday resort of Salou, south-west of Barcelona, and is one of the most varied rounds of the season.  Traditionally a pure asphalt fixture over smooth and flowing roads in the Tarragona region, it has evolved into a mixed surface event in recent years with the introduction of gravel speed tests.
Friday’s opening leg is 90 per cent gravel, with several short asphalt sections included.  The most demanding challenge will be the 44.02km Terra Alta special stage which includes three surface changes.  Latvala and Solberg’s Fiesta RS WRCs will be prepared to full gravel specification for the day, after which the team will convert them to asphalt trim for the final two legs.
The sealed surface roads are fast and can be compared to a race circuit in their characteristics.  They are smooth, often abrasive and can become slippery as drivers cut corners to save vital tenths of a second, dragging stones and dirt onto the surface.
Latvala is nine points ahead of Solberg in the points standings and the 27-year-old Finn is confident after what he described as his best asphalt performance en route to second in France last month.  He finished third in Spain last year, his best result there from eight starts.
“It’s a dream of mine to win an asphalt rally and I’ve always thought that Spain could give me the best opportunity,” he said.  “But to be able to challenge I must be in a good position after the opening day on gravel.  A strong first leg will give me a platform from which I can go out and do my best over the last two days on asphalt.
“The roads are smoother and wider than elsewhere in the series.  They’re well used by the public so they’re maintained to a high level.  A lot of repair work has been done to ensure there are far fewer places where we can cut corners, there are only a couple of stages where this is possible now.  Cutting drags a lot of dirt onto the roads and so this means conditions are more even for all of us.
Latvala completed more than 200km of testing on Wednesday in mixed conditions.  “It was damp and cool in the morning and full dry later in the day.  It was good experience because the rally is later in the calendar than normal and those are the type of conditions that we will likely encounter,” he added.
Solberg has plenty of Spanish experience, the 37-year-old Norwegian preparing for his 11th start.  His best result was in 2010 when he finished second.  He is buoyed by a 250km asphalt test on Tuesday, which he described as ‘the best test session of the year’.
“I really enjoyed the work we did and it’s given me extra confidence for the rally,” he enthused.  “My target is clear – to go there and try to win.  That’s more important to me than chasing a medal for finishing third in the championship.  If I take third in the points, then that’s a bonus, but a gold medal for winning the rally would mean more than a bronze in the championship.
“It’s the final round and both titles are decided, so there will be a lot of people with nothing to lose who will be pushing hard.  It’s a great rally and the asphalt is fast and smooth.  It’s the closest the WRC comes to competing on a race circuit.  Mixed surfaces bring something different to the series, but I’m not keen on gravel and asphalt in the same stage.  It should be one or the other,” said Solberg.
Team News
* As both loose surface and asphalt stages are used, Michelin will have Latitude Cross gravel tyres and Pilot Sport asphalt rubber available.  Latitude Cross tyres will be used for Thursday’s qualifying and Friday’s opening leg.  Drivers have 14 hard compound and eight soft compound covers available, and can use a maximum of 15.  For the final two all-asphalt legs, 20 Pilot Sport tyres can be used from a selection of 18 hard and 16 soft compound covers.  Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the tyres and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Six private crews will drive Fiesta RS WRCs.  M-Sport Ford World Rally Team has entered two cars for Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk and WRC debutants John Powell / Michael Fenell.  Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson will compete for Adapta World Rally Team and Daniel Oliveira / Carlos Magalhaes will represent Brazil World Rally Team.  Martin Prokop / Zdeněk Hrůza will crew the Czech Ford National Team car and the Fiesta RS WRC entries are completed by Evgeny Novikov / Ilka Minor.  Both Prokop and Novikov will be run by Autotek Motorsport and will use DMACK tyres.
* Eight crews are entered for the final round of the Ford Racing-backed FIA WRC Academy.  The title was won at the previous round in France by Elfyn Evans / Phil Pugh but four crews will battle it out in Fiesta R2 cars for the runner-up spot - Brendan Reeves / Rhianon Smyth, José Suárez / Cándido Carrera, Pontus Tidemand / Stig Skjaemoen and John MacCrone / Stuart Loudon.
Rally Route
Most of the route is familiar from the past two years, but innovations for 2012 include a Barcelona city centre start ceremony on Thursday evening and a special stage on Salou seafront on Friday.  Salou’s PortAventura theme park hosts the single service park and the action spans the Tarragona region.  After Thursday morning’s qualifying, drivers journey into Barcelona for the start in the Plaza de la Catedral.  Friday’s opening leg west of Salou is 90 per cent gravel and includes a new test early in the morning and a short mixed surface evening stage along the town’s seafront.  The second asphalt leg heads north-west and contains two passes over the 45.97km El Priorat test, one of the longest of the season.  The final day is closer to Salou and includes the Power Stage, with bonus points on offer to the fastest three drivers.  Competitors tackle 18 stages covering 405.46km in a route of 1391.73km.     

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