Ford’s record-breaking Focus RS World Rally Car begins a remarkable 12th season as the company’s challenger in the FIA World Rally Championship in Sweden next week. The car, which won back-to-back manufacturers’ world titles in 2006 and 2007 and secured Ford’s longest winning run in the WRC with five successive victories last season, will carry the title hopes of the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team for a final time as the 2010 season blasts into action at Rally Sweden (11 – 14 February).
New regulations for 2011 will see the Focus RS WRC replaced by a new car based on the highly successful Ford Fiesta road car. Before then drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila will bid to add to the Focus RS WRC’s tally of 41 wins and an unbroken points-scoring record of 119 consecutive rallies, which dates back to the start of the 2002 season.
Hirvonen, runner-up in the 2009 drivers’ standings, and Latvala are big fans of Rally Sweden, the only pure winter rally in the 13-round series and one of the most specialised of the year. Organisers predict the coldest event for 20 years, with temperatures forecast to plunge below -25ºC. That should ensure perfect conditions in the barren countryside of the Värmland region of central Sweden for Ford’s Finns to display their winter driving talents.
The cold places huge demands on man and machine. Keeping the Focus RS WRCs at peak performance level in such unrelenting cold requires huge resolve and determination from mechanics forced to work outside in the snow. But for the drivers, a winter wonderland where skinny studded tyres, anti-snow glare glasses and heated driving boots are ‘de rigueur’, it could not be better.
Tungsten-tipped steel studs protruding from Pirelli’s narrow winter tyres bite into the icy surface to provide amazing grip and, paradoxically, this is one of the fastest rounds of the year. Drivers are also able to ‘lean’ their cars against the solid snow banks that line the forest tracks to guide them around corners and extract the extra speed that can make all the difference between winning and losing.
Twenty-nine-year-old Hirvonen is a Sweden veteran. This is his seventh start, with his best result coming in the rally’s last appearance in the championship in 2008 when he was second. He is confident the experience gained from last year’s epic drivers’ title battle will help in the new campaign.
“On occasions I wasn’t brave enough to make the decisions I needed to with my car set-up or to drive more aggressively,” he said. “I’ve learned from that and this year there will be no second thoughts. The difference between myself and the title winner last year was a single point. That translates to tiny decisions on the stages but it’s those small things that make the difference between winning and coming second, and when you’re brave enough to take the chances, you can feel the difference.
“Sweden is a great rally for me to start the year. A driver can be more free in the snow because there is no need to be quite so precise with driving lines as on gravel or asphalt. You can carry more speed into the corners and use the snow banks to guide the car round. The grip is incredible. If the ice is slightly soft then the studded tyres bite really well and it’s a crazy feeling to drive so fast in such slippery conditions, knowing there is as much grip as on a gravel road,” he added.
Latvala claimed his maiden WRC win in Sweden in 2008 and the 24-year-old is refreshed and raring to go after more than three months since the end of the 2009 season. “I love driving in the snow and I would like to think a top three result is a realistic target. But my priority throughout this year will be to finish each rally in a strong points-scoring position to ensure the team scores well on each event and to help Mikko with his challenge for the drivers’ title,” he said.
“Sweden is one of my favourite rounds and one of the most spectacular in the championship. If you think about snow, the expectation is that it will be slippery, but the studs provide grip that can be better than on gravel roads. However, it’s easy to become carried away and push too hard, and then the car can end up buried in a snow bank. The banks also provide a safety net. If you enter a corner too fast, you can ‘lean’ the car onto them to guide it around, so it can be a forgiving rally,” he added.
Abu Dhabi’s Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive a third Focus RS WRC for the team. “The first WRC rally of the year is always a really exciting time and I can’t wait to get started. These are exciting times for Abu Dhabi’s rally programme and I hope we can kick it all off with a strong performance in the snow next week and start as we mean to go on,” said 37-year-old Al Qassimi.
Tyre partner Pirelli will provide its Sottozero winter tyre, which will be available with 7mm studs to penetrate the snow and bite into the ice beneath. The tyre was designed in a wider format than is usual for a winter pattern to enable teams to use it with the standard 15-inch wheel rims used on all other loose surface rounds of the championship. The tread blocks are spread slightly wider as a result. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber in the event of heavy snow and each car can carry two spares.
The team will complete a four-day pre-event test on roads near Kall in northern Sweden on Sunday. Hirvonen will finish his two-day session today (Friday) before a private ski-ing and training session over the weekend. Latvala will take over for Saturday and Sunday.
More than 31 per cent of the 57 competitors are at the wheel of Ford cars. Twelve Focus RS WRCs are listed, including three Stobart M-Sport Ford cars for Marcus Grönholm / Timo Rautiainen, Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor and Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin. Four Fiesta S2000 crews will start, including three competing in the new S-WRC, and there is also a Fiesta R2 and a Fiesta S2 entered.
Organisers have introduced major changes in a bid to guarantee full snow cover. Karlstad remains the rally base, and each leg starts and finishes there, but the single service park has been moved back to Hagfors to allow more northerly stages to be used in search of true winter conditions.
Fifty-seven per cent of the competitive distance has changed since the last running in 2008, although many of the new roads are familiar from previous years.
The action begins with a super special stage at Karlstad’s trotting track on Thursday evening and the test also ends Friday’s opening leg, which journeys to the rally’s most northerly point. The second day includes a short test on the edge of Hagfors and the final day is based east of the town.
Drivers tackle 21 tests covering 345.15km in a route of 1879.23km.