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After dominating the last three rounds of the FIA World Rally Championship on gravel, BP-Ford World Rally Team takes its lead in both the manufacturers' and drivers' series to Germany next week for the first taste of asphalt since January.  Rallye Deutschland (16 - 19 August) will mark the sealed surface debut of the 2007-specification Ford Focus RS World Rally Car which made a hugely successful maiden appearance with a one-two finish in Finland earlier this month.

This ninth event of the 16-round series can be as demanding and unpredictable as January's opening asphalt encounter in Monte Carlo.  The roads could not be more different than the French Alpine passes.  But the changing nature of the characteristics and surface of the speed tests and the ever-present threat of rain can offer the type of conditions that makes tyre selection just as tricky.

Reigning champion BP-Ford goes into the event with a 40-point lead in the manufacturers' standings while Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen, whose Finland victory followed early summer wins in Italy and Greece, are 13 points clear in the drivers' series.  Team-mates and fellow Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lie third, just five points behind Sébastien Loeb.

The rally is based in Trier, Germany's oldest city and close to the border with Luxembourg.  The special stages cover three totally different types of road and the nature of each varies enormously.  The bumpy narrow tracks in the Mosel vineyards, which host the first and last legs, comprise fast sections linked by hairpin bends as they rise and fall among the vines.  Corners are partly hidden by the tall vines and there is no 'flow' to the artificial roads.  The public roads in Saarland, used on the second leg, are more flowing but are frequently wooded and can be equally tricky in the wet.

But the infamous Baumholder military ranges provide the toughest test.  The roads used for tank training by US soldiers are unique to the series.  Fast, wide asphalt contrasts with bumpy abrasive concrete and demands high durability from the BFGoodrich tyres.  Massive kerb stones, known as hinkelstein, designed to keep the tanks on the roads sit on the edge and will punish the slightest mistake.  The tracks are always dirty, a mix of sand and gravel making conditions slippery in the dry and treacherous in the wet.  The term asphalt is somewhat of a misnomer for Baumholder.

Grönholm has four podium finishes from five starts in Germany and the 39-year-old acknowledges the challenges this event poses.  "This will be one of the most difficult events of the season," he said.  "The stages aren't easy and the weather plays such a huge part in the outcome.  It's unpredictable and if a driver is on the wrong type of rain when it suddenly rains, then that can decide the outcome.  It rained most of the day during our test on Thursday so that helped us to try a few things in the wet."

"Beating Loeb on asphalt is a big task but I hope we can be really close to him and if that is the case, who knows what will happen?  We proved in Finland the new Focus RS has moved forward and this rally will give everyone an idea how the second half of the season could develop," he added.

This is Hirvonen's fourth start in Germany and the 27-year-old is keen to assess the improvement of the new Focus RS on asphalt.  "We tested in Spain in June and in Germany this week and I think we've made a bigger improvement on asphalt than on gravel with the new car," he said.  "It has more grip and is more precise to drive.

"I'm not going there thinking I can win.  My aim is to push Dani Sordo as hard as I can and if I can take third, that would be like a win for me.  There are many challenges on this rally.  Baumholder is extremely fast in places and the vineyards require a lot of courage.  The roads are fast and narrow and if you don't have a good feeling with the tyres, it's easy to lose a lot of time there," he added.  

Abu Dhabi driver Khalid Al Qassimi and Nicky Beech will drive a third Focus RS on their WRC asphalt debut after an encouraging 16th place finish in Finland.  “Obviously it will be completely different from Finland," said Al Qassimi.  "The recce will be the first time I see the stages themselves and I’ll have a much better idea of the challenges on Wednesday evening.

"In Finland I got a good basic understanding of how the car works, where my braking points were and how much speed I could carry in the corners.  However, in Germany many of those things will be different again.  So I need to understand this surface and how to adapt my pace notes for the event to ensure I reach the finish," added 35-year-old Al Qassimi.

Team News

* BP-Ford will have two tread patterns to choose from.  BFGoodrich's g-Force Profiler rubber is available in soft, medium and hard compounds for dry asphalt while the Profiler H pattern for wet roads is available in a soft compound.  If the rain is heavy, engineers will carve additional cuts into the H pattern.  The grooves can be either longitudinal to combat aquaplaning or lateral for extra braking and traction.

* The team today finishes a three-day test in preparation for the rally.  Hirvonen completed a day in the Mosel vineyards before Grönholm took over for a day in the same area and a day in Saarland.

* The rally has huge significance for Ford.  The company's European headquarters in Cologne is 165km from the rally base in Trier and the Saarlouis factory, home of the Focus road car, is only 65km away.  BP-Ford's drivers will visit the plant on the Monday after the rally where they will sign autographs and meet employees returning to work after their summer break.

Rally Route

The route has undergone major changes from 2006.  The single service park moves back to Trier's Messepark, last used in 2002.  Associated with this is a super special stage midway through Sunday's final leg based around the city's historic Porta Nigra, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Four cars will race around the course at the same time, starting at 15-second intervals.  This stage will replace the traditional street test in St Wendel.  There is also a greater emphasis on the vineyard stages alongside the Mosel river with the first and last legs based there.  As a result there are fewer public road tests in the Saarland region.  After a ceremonial start at Porta Nigra on Thursday night and Friday's opening day in the Mosel, Saturday's leg is the longest of all.  It is split between tests in Saarland and Baumholder, covering 164.86km with two remote service zones in Konken.  Drivers tackle 19 stages in total, of which only the super special is used once, covering 356.27km in a route of 1227.04km.
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