Ford BP Rallye Sport faces the hostile environment of central Greece intent on extending its mastery of the Acropolis Rally (3 - 6 June) by claiming a fifth consecutive victory on one of the toughest events in the FIA World Rally Championship. The Ford Focus RS World Rally Car has thrived in the extreme conditions found in the Greek mountains and four straight wins on one of the sport's classic events is testament to the car's strength, reliability and speed.
The challenge offered by the Acropolis, the second of three hot weather, rough gravel events in the eastern Mediterranean, can’t be underestimated. Early June can bring air temperatures exceeding 30°C. And a combination of potentially car-breaking boulders and unforgiving base rock jutting through the surface will pose a harsh test for the cars and drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park and teammates François Duval and Stéphane Pr
Roads that are faster than the previous round in Cyprus offer better airflow and cooling to the engine and transmission. But higher speeds mean rocks can inflict greater punishment and the team's Focus RS cars have been prepared with additional protection.
Reliability will be more important than ever before thanks to the introduction of remote tyre and fuel service zones. Designed to allow the rally to venture further from its base, these zones allow just 10 minutes maintenance on cars, with only two team personnel and the driver and co-driver allowed to work on them. Only spare parts carried in the rally car can be fitted in these zones. There is only one such zone on the rally, on Saturday morning, but it will require drivers to tackle more than 87km of competition between traditional service opportunities.
"We'll have to be more careful on this section not to take so many risks because damage to the car may not always be repairable by just ourselves and two mechanics, especially without the necessary spare parts," said Märtin. "The less service we have, the more careful we must be."
It is also an arduous rally for tyre partner, Michelin. The abrasive roads and high temperatures generate high tyre wear. Hard compound rubber combats wear but reduces grip, which in turn generates wheelspin and therefore more wear. So the challenge is to find a compromise that offers rubber durable enough to survive the long stages, but soft enough to offer maximum grip.
Twelve months ago Märtin and Park used the strengths of the Focus RS to perfection to claim their maiden WRC victory. "Last year was special but it makes no difference to this year's event," said the 28-year-old Estonian driver, for whom this will be his sixth start. "What has made a difference is this week's changes to the results of the last round in Cyprus. Marcus Grönholm's exclusion means I will now be second in the start order on the opening day. That will be difficult because we can expect loose and slippery gravel on the road surface during the first pass of the stages while those behind us will enjoy cleaner and faster conditions.
"It's a hard rally, especially on tyres. The speeds are higher than in Cyprus. That means the pressure in the tyres is higher, which creates more heat and more wear. Cooler temperatures would be a big help. Of the three hot, rough rallies in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, this is the best from a drivers' view. The roads are interesting, open in some places and twisty in others and while there are many rough sections, there are also some which are smoother," he added.
Duval also has good experience of the rally and this will be his fourth start. "I like the event and after the disappointment of retiring so early in Cyprus, I'm glad this rally is here so soon," said the 23-year-old Belgian.
"We had a good test earlier this week and that has given me plenty of confidence. It's a rally where a driver has to think carefully about how to approach it. Some sections are very rough and it's important to protect the car and drive a little bit slower. We are sixth in the start order that is quite good for the opening day. A top five result would be great but the most important thing is to finish in the points. I won't risk everything by chasing a podium finish. It's more important to drive carefully and reach the end," he added.
* Team director Malcolm Wilson has formulated a plan to combat the most demanding section of the event on Saturday morning when traditional service is banned for almost 90km. "A lot will depend on our positions after the first day but we will carry additional spares in the cars. We'll look at carrying parts than can be changed within the 10 minute remote service, like suspension arms," he said.
* François Duval has completed two test sessions since the Cyprus Rally. Last week he completed a four-day research and development test at the MIRA facility in England before tackling a highly successful two-day endurance test in Greece earlier this week, during which he completed 550km. He covered more than 300km during the opening day near Itea before the team switched to a second venue near Corinth.
One of the longest running traditions of the championship has disappeared with the decision to scrap the ceremonial start at the Parthenon in central Athens, from which the rally takes its name. Instead the event will start on Thursday evening with the first of three tests at the superspecial stage at Lilea following the official start in the rally base of Lamia. Otherwise the route is almost identical to 2003, with just one new stage, Styrfaka, on the final leg and small modifications to several others. The opening two legs cover classic mountain stages south of Lamia and close to Parnassos National Park, the second leg venturing further south towards the former rally base of Itea. Both end with repeat visits to the Lilea super special. The third, and shortest, leg tackles tests around the Timphristos Mountains to the north-west. Drivers face 377.13km of competition in a total distance of 1438.48km.
FIA World Rally Championship (after round 5 of 16) Drivers
1. S Loeb 35pts
2. M Märtin (Ford) 34pts
3. P Solberg 28pts
4. M Grönholm 24pts
5. C Sainz 19pts
6. F Duval (Ford) 14pts
1. Ford 58pts
2. Citroen 54pts
3. Subaru 40pts
4. Peugeot 33pts
5. Mitsubishi 5pts