Rallye Deutschland – Ford preview
- 7th August 2006, 8:17am
Although the last rally was in early June, BP-Ford drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen have been busy since. They tested for two days each in Germany and Finland in July ahead of a four-day development test in Sardinia, which ends today (Friday). And a new engine evolution, aimed at improving top speed, will be available to both drivers for the rally.
This ninth round can be as unpredictable and demanding as January's opening asphalt encounter in Monte Carlo, which brought a debut victory for Grönholm in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. The roads could not be more different than the French Alpine mountain passes, but the changing nature of the speed tests and the ever-present threat of rain in the region could make conditions tricky for the Finn and fellow countryman Hirvonen.
The rally is based close to Trier, Germany's oldest city and just across the border from Luxembourg and France. However, the special stages are located in three different areas and the characteristics of each vary enormously, requiring a different car set-up for each. The bumpy narrow tracks in the Mosel vineyards, which host the opening day, comprise fast sections linked by tight hairpin bends. Corners are partly hidden by tall vines and dirt dragged onto the driving line makes conditions slippery. The smoother roads in Saarland, tackled on the final 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 of all. The roads are used for tank training by US soldiers and are unique to the championship. Fast, wide asphalt contrasts with bumpy, abrasive concrete which has been damaged by the tanks and will demand high durability from the BF Goodrich tyres fitted to the Focus RS cars.
Massive kerb stones, known as Hinkelstein, sit right on the edge of many of Baumholder's tracks. Designed to keep the tanks on the road, they can punish the slightest mistake by drivers. The military tracks are frequently dirty, a mixture of gravel and sand making conditions slippery in the dry and treacherous in the wet weather which often characterises the region in August.
Grönholm, winner of the Acropolis Rally of Greece which ended the first half of the season, has three podium finishes to his name from four starts in Germany. The 38-year-old Finn, who lies second in the drivers' standings, is keen to step up from a second and two thirds to the top step.
"I think I can do it," he said. "I've been close to winning previously. It won't be easy because Loeb has won four times in Germany and he is good in the slippery conditions that we often find there. It would be good to beat him and shake him up a little. The Focus RS is good enough and now it is up to the driver. We tested in two locations, on Baumholder and in the vineyards, and I have good experience from that.
"The rally is OK in the dry but it's awful in the wet. Conditions can change quickly and it's easy to be on the wrong tyres. Baumholder is a difficult place. It's slippery when it's dry, it's slippery when it's wet - it's slippery all the time. And a driver can't afford to make a mistake because it's so easy to hit a hinkelstein and if that happens then it's unlikely the car will go any further," he added.
Hirvonen ended the opening half of the season with podiums in both Italy and Greece and the 26-year-old Finn has his sights set on more. "I think there are many rallies in the second half of the season where I can fight for a podium," he said. "BP-Ford is second and still has a chance of the manufacturers' title so I need to score as many points as possible and that will be my target for the rest of the year. I have a chance of a top three in Germany but it won't be easy.
"It's difficult because each day has different stages and the team has to make set-up changes to the car for each type of road. They are all fast but I enjoy the Sunday stages in Saarland the best. They are more traditional as the roads cross fields and pass through forests but drivers cut the corners so there can be a lot of gravel and mud dragged onto the road. Baumholder is tricky. There are so many surface changes that it is hard to judge what kind of traction there is. It often rains and that makes the rally even more difficult and makes tyre choice hard," he added.
* BP-Ford will choose tyres from two different patterns. BFGoodrich's g-Force Profiler rubber is available in soft, medium and hard compounds for dry asphalt while the Profiler Humid pattern for wet roads is accessible in soft and medium compounds. If the rain is heavy, tyre engineers will carve additional cuts into the rubber of the Humid pattern. The grooves can be either longitudinal to combat aquaplaning, or lateral for extra braking and traction.
* The Stobart-VK-M-Sport Ford Rally Team has entered 2004 Focus RS WRCs. Britain's Matthew Wilson / Michael Orr and Finns Jari-Matti Latvala / Miikka Anttila will drive. Privately-entered Focus RS cars will also be driven by Irish crew Gareth MacHale / Paul Nagle and Belgians Pieter Tsjoen / Eddy Chevaillier. Barry Clark / Scott Martin will pilot a Fiesta ST in the FIA Junior World Rally Championship and it is also round four of the Fiesta SportingTrophy International.
* The rally has huge significance for Ford. The company's European headquarters in Cologne is less than 200km from the Bostalsee service park and the route passes close to Ford's Saarlouis factory, the home of the Focus road car.
The rally shows few changes from 2005. It contains a mix of stages in the Mosel vineyards, on the Baumholder military land and in Saarland, each offering totally different characteristics. It begins with a ceremonial start at Trier's historic Porta Nigra on Thursday before venturing into the tricky vineyard roads on Friday where competitors tackle one new stage. The second leg is the longest of the rally. The bulk of the action is on Baumholder while the spectacular end of day test around the streets of St Wendel will be used in the opposite direction this year. The short final leg is centred in Saarland before competitors return to the Trier finish. Bostalsee hosts the single service park. There are 19 stages, eight of which are repeated, covering 351.55km in a route of 1300.48km.
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