Next week will see the M-Sport Stobart Ford World Rally Team continue its bid to secure its best overall season to date in the FIA World Rally Championship as its four crews tackle Rallye de France Alsace in the Ford Fiesta RS WRC.
The Cumbria-based squad has scored points in every rally since the 2011 season-opener in Sweden, and the team has finished in the top five in eight out of ten WRC rounds.
After skipping the previous event in Australia, Norwegian Mads Østberg returns to the world rally scene to battle for sixth place in the WRC drivers’ standings alongside team-mate Matthew Wilson.
Since Germany, Østberg has been working hard to secure funding for the remainder of 2011 as well as attending the annual Solberg Extreme Motor Show alongside countrymen Henning and Petter Solberg.
The 23-year-old has also been crowned Norwegian Rally Champion for the fourth time after amassing an unassailable lead that means he can no longer be caught by his rivals with just one round of the NRC remaining.
However, Østberg will still be looking to push at the final round of the NRC - Rally Hedemarken – this weekend in an attempt to score enough points for Jonas Andersson to be crowned the 2011 co-drivers’ champion.
Fresh from matching a career-best fourth place at Rally Australia earlier this month, Britain’s Matthew Wilson and fellow Cumbrian Scott Martin are eager to post another strong result in France.
The 24-year-old is now only four points adrift of team-mate Østberg in the WRC drivers’ standings, and will be looking to record a healthy score of points in order to move into sixth place in the standings. Wilson’s previous best overall finish in the WRC drivers’ championship is seventh.
Since Australia, Wilson has attended the annual Rallyday extravaganza at Castle Combe race circuit where he wowed thousands of spectators in the Ford Fiesta RS WRC.
Regular team-mates Henning Solberg and co-driver Ilka Minor will also be present under the M-Sport Stobart banner at the second asphalt event of the season.  The pair were close to sealing their best result of the season in Australia until an electrical problem forced the duo to retire.
Solberg will be looking to emulate his fine performance in last year’s event in France, which saw the driver finish first in class and ninth overall at the wheel of a Ford Fiesta S2000.
Rallye de France debutant Evgeny Novikov will drive under the M-Sport Stobart banner for the sixth time next week.  The Russian, who celebrated his 21st birthday on Monday, has proved himself as a sensationally quick driver in 2011.
France will mark the first time that the WRC’s youngest ever stage winner has competed on asphalt this season, so Novikov and co-driver Denis Giraudet will be looking to benefit from a pre-event test organised with the Ford Fiesta RS WRC on Monday.
Mads Østberg said:
“I’ve spent a lot of this week entertaining sponsors - it’s really important to give something back, especially as without their help we wouldn’t have been able to compete in France or Spain so I’m very grateful.  We still have a lot of work to do in order to get to Wales but we will never give up and just have to see nearer the time whether that is possible.  I really like the character of the stages in France – the roads are fast and flowing but last year’s event was one of the most difficult I’ve encountered.  I’m hoping for nice weather and a clear road as when the conditions are right I think the stages are fantastic.  I’ve also been trying to get into the right mind set as I need to get used to asphalt as quickly as I can next week. For this event I may need to be clever and change my tactics slightly to score points.  The most important thing for me is to gain experience on asphalt and make it to the end without problems rather than concentrating on fast stage times.”
Matthew Wilson said:
“I’m feeling confident on the back of a good result from Australia but I’m preparing myself for what could be a difficult rally as last year’s event was very, very tricky.  The weather made the conditions on the roads feel more like a gravel rally with the amount of mud that had been dragged across the road. Of course this year will just depend on the weather so I just hope it stays clear so we can enjoy the stages a bit more. I’m feeling much more confident driving on asphalt now – we had a good fight in Germany and some of the stages in Alsace are similar to the Trier-based rally so hopefully this will pay off when we go to France.”
Henning Solberg said:
“It still feels a bit strange going to a French round of the WRC but not being based in Corsica, but the amount of spectators that were there last year seems to make Strasbourg an ideal location. I remember there being a lot of different stage surfaces with some broken asphalt and a mixture of narrow and fast sections which can make it difficult finding a good rhythm. I’m not sure what the weather will be like when we get there but the cold temperatures last year made it harder for us. I think judging the correct set-up could be the most difficult factor next week but we’ll aim to use Shakedown to find a good feeling before we start the rally.”

Evgeny Novikov said:
“France will be my first asphalt rally this year so, for sure, it’s going to be a big challenge. I don’t have much experience driving on the surface but I will start the rally and then we will see what happens.  I have a test planned for Monday so this should help me to experience the power of the Ford Fiesta RS WRC on asphalt. I would like to drive without any problems in order to finish. Of course, I still have Rally Australia on my mind but I have to work to reach the finish and I am always trying to be fast, as if you are slow, you are not gaining experience. These are my conclusions and now I just look forward to getting to France.”

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