Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park have won the gruelling Acropolis Rally in their Focus RS World Rally Car after three days of demanding flat-out driving in the mountains of central Greece.
It was the Ford Focus' fourth consecutive victory on the Acropolis, the toughest round of the FIA World Rally Championship, and a first world rally triumph for Märtin and Park.
The success marked the first win for Ford's radical new 2003 Focus rally car on just its third event. It was also the first rally win for the newly formed Ford Team RS, a division in Ford that combines the company's motorsport activities with the development of a new range of 'performance' production cars.
Following Giancarlo Fisichella's victory in the Ford-engined Jordan in the Brazilian Grand Prix, Ford Team RS has wins in both the World Rally and Formula 1 world championships this year.
On the eve of the rally Ford announced a new partnership with BP for its world championship programme and Märtin's victory, in a Focus bearing the Castrol brand of the BP group, brought extra significance.
Märtin and Park dominated the rally from the first morning. They took the lead on the second of the rally's 22 rock-strewn speed tests, covering 399.49km, as Ford took a firm grip on this sixth round of the championship with the similar Focus RS of 22-year-old François Duval and Stéphane Pr
évot lying second.
Twenty-seven-year-old Märtin was never again headed, the Estonian claiming five stage victories en route to a 46.0sec win over former team-mate Carlos Sainz. Ford's squad is the youngest in the series and the decision to focus on youth while at the same time developing a new car has seen its first reward here and promises much for the future.
The Focus has gained a well-earned reputation as the best car on the world's roughest rallies and Märtin produced the ideal blend of speed and reliability to see off all his challengers
The victory came exactly one year after Märtin looked certain to win here in 2002, only for a puncture to deny him when a clear leader.
"This has come 12 months later than I thought but it was the most incredible feeling to stand there on the winner's podium with my Focus, surrounded by all the team who have worked so hard to make this possible,” said Märtin.
“It's been a hard weekend but I'm just so happy that my first win has finally happened. It's been a long time coming and I'm relieved as much as anything.
"We've proved again that the Focus is fast, reliable and strong on the roughest rally of the season. Everyone in the team has put in such a huge effort with the new car in the past few months and this is a great reward for them also.
“After recent disappointments, luck has finally been on our side here and let's hope it remains with us.”
He was also awarded the Inmarsat Star of the Rally award for his achievement and a USD5000 prize to be given to charity. Märtin decided to donate the cash to Tartu University Children's Hospital appeal for buying modern high-technology ventilation and breathing equipment in his hometown. Each year the hospital accepts a third of all Estonian children requiring intensive care treatment.
Ford BP Rallye Sport team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted. "Victory here in Greece was my target for the new Focus RS and I'm delighted we've achieved that. Markko drove a flawless rally. It's a difficult event and he's had a lot of pressure thrown at him but he kept a cool head and I'm sure this is a platform for him to go on and win more rallies. François was unlucky to retire but to hold the top two places on the toughest event in the series shows just how great the potential is for this car," he said.
Eighteen-year-old Finn Jari-Matti Latvala and Welsh co-driver Carl Williamson finished a superb 10th on only their second world rally in a M-Sport-run Focus. Their primary target was to gain experience of the sport at its highest level but Latvala, who restricted his pace to 80 percent to avoid taking major risks, was still able to set a string of top 10 stage times. "We couldn't have wished for a better rally," said Latvala. "It feels great to be here. I predicted a top 20 finish so I'm more than surprised with a top 10 placing. I've learned a lot this weekend about how to drive, to be careful, tidier and not to take risks. The best result my father achieved was 11th on the Safari Rally so I've done better than him already."
Drivers face more of the same when Cyprus hosts round seven. The Cyprus Rally (19 - 22 June) is based in Limassol but the roads are very twisty and rough and temperatures will be as hot as Greece.