BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team journeys into the unknown next week when the final pure asphalt round of the FIA World Rally Championship season takes place in mainland France for the first time. 

Rallye de France (30 September - 1 October) has been one of the classic events of the series since it began in 1973, but this year's rally switches from its traditional base on the Mediterranean island of Corsica to a new home in north-east France.

It means drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila will tackle brand new speed tests for the third time this season, following in the footsteps of Turkey and Bulgaria.  The rally also marks the final all-asphalt event for the record-breaking Focus RS World Rally Car as an official Ford entry, ahead of the introduction of the Fiesta RS WRC in 2011.

Historic Strasbourg, the biggest city in the Alsace region of France and the centre of which is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, will host this 11th round of the year.  It nestles alongside the River Rhine on the border with Germany, between the Vosges mountains to the west and the Black Forest to the east.  

The rally offers a mix of roads to challenge competitors.  The opening day in the Vosges blends narrow, bumpy sections with blisteringly fast, wide roads where speeds could top 200kph.  The second day is completely different as drivers tackle a labyrinth of vineyard roads on flat, open plains.  The special stages in the last leg are different again, with a mix of street roads and fast tracks through a military camp.

Thirty-year-old Hirvonen tested on Tuesday and Wednesday close to Strasbourg, before Latvala took over yesterday (Thursday) for a two-day session that ends today.

"It was all about finding a set-up for the kind of roads we expect to find on the rally," said Hirvonen.  "The test roads were narrow and bumpy and the surface changed frequently.  We looked at developing a compromise set-up that we believe will work well on the different types of stages we expect to face in the rally.

"I expect many changes of rhythm as the roads change from fast to twisty, and wide to narrow.  If the pace notes are accurate then that isn't a difficulty.  But if, for example, they are too fast when the road switches from a wide section to a narrow stretch, then it can be trickier.  I wasn't so happy with my driving on the Friday and Saturday morning during the last asphalt round in Germany, so I hope to improve.  I'm feeling confident after a good performance on the last round in Japan," he added.  

Latvala lies third in the championship and the 25-year-old Finn hopes to maintain his progress on asphalt after finishing fourth in the last sealed-surface round in Germany last month.  "I felt there that I was enjoying driving on asphalt as much as I have ever done.  It wasn't my best result on that surface because I finished third in Ireland in 2007, but I feel I have moved up a level on the last two asphalt rallies.  It gives me a lot of confidence ahead of this rally," he said.

"We must write pace notes from a blank sheet because we've not driven the roads before, so it's vital we concentrate hard in the recce.  We're only allowed two passes through the stages so we must ensure they are as accurate as possible.  When I looked at the route and saw it included vineyards and military roads, my first impressions were that this would be like Rallye Deutschland.  But our engineers have looked at the stages and it seems the roads are more similar to those of the Monte Carlo Rally, especially the first leg," he added.

Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive the team's third Focus RS WRC, hoping to put behind them the memories of crashing out in the opening few kilometres in Rally Japan.  "Our result in Japan wasn't what we wanted, but Michael and I went straight to Rally Lebanon where we were able to claim maximum points for our FIA Middle East Rally Championship challenge.  It was a successful asphalt event and has given us confidence ahead of Rallye de France," said Al Qassimi.

Team News

* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide two tyre specifications for the BP Ford Abu Dhabi drivers.  The standard PZero asphalt tyre will be available primarily in hard compound, but with a limited amount of soft compound rubber for use in cold or wet weather.  Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber in the event of rain or mud and each car can carry two spares.

* Three other Focus RS WRCs are entered.  Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are nominated in the Stobart M-Sport Ford team and will be joined in the points-scoring line-up for the first time by Monster World Rally Team's Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino.  Argentines Federico Villagra / Diego Curletto will drive for the Munchi's Ford team.  The rally is the ninth round of the S-WRC and eight Ford Fiesta S2000 cars will start, including joint championship leaders Xevi Pons / Alex Haro and Martin Prokop / Jan Tomanek.  It is also round six of the Fiesta SportTrophy and five Fiesta R2 cars are entered.

* Latvala drove Block's Focus RS WRC in the 10th anniversary Rallyday display event at Castle Combe race circuit in Britain last weekend.  Also in attendance was ex-Ford driver Stig Blomqvist.

Rally Route

Thursday evening's start ceremony takes place in Strasbourg's Place Kléber, the city's largest square in the heart of the shopping area.  The opening leg journeys south for stages in the bumpy vineyards and Vosges mountains near Colmar, and includes the climb of Le Grand Ballon, the high point of the mountain range at 1424 metres.  The city of Mulhouse hosts a remote service midway through the day.  The second day is based south-west of Strasbourg, much of it on extremely narrow roads across flat and open plains.  The final day journeys north of the host city for a street test in Haguenau and fast roads in the Bitche military camp.  The Sunday afternoon finish is outside the European Parliament building in central Strasbourg.  Drivers tackle 20 stages covering 352.88km in a route of 1272.31km.  

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