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BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team has stepped up its preparations for next week's penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Spain as the 2009 season heads for a gripping climax. 

The squad extended its test ahead of Rally de España (1 - 4 October) from four days to seven, and both drivers' championship leader Mikko Hirvonen and team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala completed asphalt coaching to strengthen Ford's title challenge.  

Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen take a five-point lead into this 11th round of the campaign after winning the last four rounds in the record-breaking Ford Focus RS World Rally Car.  They will be supported by fellow Finns Latvala and Miikka Anttila, whose victory in Italy in May began a five-rally winning streak that is Ford's best-ever in the WRC.

Hirvonen visited Britain last week for a day's driving training with former European FIA Endurance Touring Car champion Rob Wilson.  He then completed two days' testing on sweeping roads in Catalonia, close to where the rally is based, and has an additional day scheduled on Monday.  Latvala took tuition from ex-Finnish touring car champion Olli Haapalainen before his two-day test this week.

The Spanish session was launched by ex-Ford driver Markko Märtin, who won back-to-back asphalt rallies in a Focus RS WRC in France and Spain in 2004.  He spent two days with the team last week, using his sealed surface expertise to advise on car set-up and pinpoint minor modifications that could improve the Focus RS WRC's performance even further.  The trio completed 1450km in six days.

The rally is based in the holiday resort of Salou, on the Costa Daurada coast, south of Barcelona.  The flowing speed tests in the Tarragona region are fast and can be compared to a race circuit in their characteristics.  Although the roads are smooth, they are often abrasive and quickly become slippery as drivers cut the open corners to shave tenths of a second from their times, dragging stones and dirt onto the surface.  Conditions will therefore worsen during the repeat afternoon pass of the special stages.

Hirvonen, who has six starts in Spain to his name, claimed his first WRC podium on this rally in 2005.  Although he has a five-point cushion over Sébastien Loeb at the top of the standings, he acknowledges he cannot afford to relax.  "Everyone knows how strong Loeb is on asphalt so I think there's enough of a fight for me to try to get second.  Eight points would help greatly ahead of the last round but won't be easy to achieve.  It will be a big challenge but I believe I have the speed to fight for second," he said.

"Preparations have gone well.  I did some coaching with Rob Wilson in the UK to focus again on asphalt driving.  It's something I've done for the past three years before asphalt rallies.  Then my test went well and hopefully I picked up something extra that will add to the experience from previous years.  The car felt very good so I'll wait to see how that transfers to the rally roads.  On just one day I completed 350km, and that's the same distance as the entire three-day rally in Spain.   

"I'm not feeling under pressure.  It's just really exciting.  I have a chance to win the title but I'm keeping my feet firmly on the ground.  I have no expectations at all and that way I've taken the pressure away, I've put it to one side.  I've had a good feeling for the last five events and I've proved things to myself that I needed to," added 29-year-old Hirvonen.

Latvala, who completed 550km in testing, is preparing for his sixth start in Spain.  "After practising on a race circuit in Finland, I was able to work on what I learned on the roads in Spain.  Every year there is less and less opportunity to cut corners on this rally because barriers are placed on the inside of bends to prevent it.  So the stages have become more and more comparable to a race circuit and the coaching I have done is perfect preparation for that type of road.

"This will be the team's most difficult rally for some time, but I was really happy with my test and pleased with the car's set-up.  I finished sixth last year and hope to improve on that.  But my main target here is to again help Mikko.  He is challenging for the title and I want to do all I can to support him and help him achieve that," added Latvala.

Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive the team's third Focus RS WRC on the Abu Dhabi driver's third Spanish start.  "The asphalt surface is going to present new challenges and I will need to concentrate on a different set of skills to the last few rallies.  The stages will be fast and more streamlined, but I'll push with everything I have to try to finish in the points," 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.

* Four 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 / Jorge Perez Companc and Paul Bird / Ian Windress will drive for the Munchi's Ford team.  The rally is also the penultimate round of the Fiesta SportTrophy International series and marks the WRC debut of the new Fiesta R2 rally car.  Five Fiesta R2s and four Fiesta ST cars have been entered by championship contenders, with a total of 11 Fiestas entered in the rally.

* Ford motorsport chief Gerard Quinn, team director Malcolm Wilson and Hirvonen all attended the opening media day at Frankfurt Show last week.  A Focus RS WRC was on display at Ford's large stand and Hirvonen tested his skills through a special stage on a new rally simulator.

Rally Route

The route is identical to 2008, with the service park based at Salou's PortAventura theme park, an hour's drive from Barcelona, and the stages spanning the Tarragona region.  Following Thursday evening's start ceremony on the seafront, each day comprises two passes over an identical loop of three stages.  Friday's opening leg is the longest of the rally with 131.76km of competition, much of it north-east of Salou.  Saturday's second day to the north-west includes the monster 38.27km El Priorat - La Ribera d'Ebre test, which opens each loop and is the longest of the event.  The final leg journeys west of Salou but stays close to the town, before the finish there at 15.07.  The 18 stages cover 353.62km in a route of 1299.13km.

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