After completing more than 12000km of testing, the all-new Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car will make its debut at Rally Sweden (10 – 13 February) next week. The opening round of the 2011 FIA World Rally Championship will introduce a fresh era to the sport, and the renamed Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team has prepared meticulously in the development of its new-generation WRC challenger.
Testing broke through the 12000km barrier last week – the equivalent of more than two seasons of WRC competition – and 2854km of that took place in Sweden in readiness for the season’s only snow and ice encounter. Final approval by the FIA, the sport’s governing body, of all technical aspects of the Fiesta RS WRC was left to the last moment to allow the team to maximise performance and provide its drivers with the best chance of a successful start.
With many changes introduced into a more cost-effective WRC for 2011, the consistency is provided by drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila. The Finnish quartet will spearhead Ford Abu Dhabi’s challenge for the fourth consecutive season, and will share equal number one status.
Both pairings are excited about competing in the Castrol EDGE-backed Fiesta RS WRC for the first time and the frozen countryside of central Sweden is a perfect place for them to start. Twenty-five-year-old Latvala, runner-up in the drivers’ championship last year, scored his first WRC win there in 2008 and 30-year-old Hirvonen won Rally Sweden in 2010.
Temperatures can plunge as low as -25ºC and that places huge demands on man and machine. Keeping the Fiesta RS WRC at peak performance in such unrelenting cold will demand huge resolve from the team’s mechanics, who must work outside in the snow. But for the drivers a winter wonderland, where studded tyres, anti-snow glare sunglasses and heated driving boots are ‘de rigeur’, brings great anticipation.
Almost 400 tungsten-tipped 7mm steel studs protrude from each winter tyre of new partner Michelin to bite into the ice and provide amazing grip and, paradoxically, this is one of the year’s fastest rounds. Drivers can also ‘lean’ their cars against the solid snow banks that line the forest roads to guide them around corners, extracting the extra speed that can make the difference between winning and losing.
Hirvonen aims to bounce back from a disappointing 2010 and said the new-look WRC format is the ideal way to banish last year’s memories. “We have a new car, new rules and a new look for the sport and I’m so excited that I can’t wait to get to Sweden for the rally,” he said. “Initially in testing I was simply learning about the Fiesta and making changes to understand how it reacted. That took a while, but then I was able to focus more specifically on set-up work.
“We’ll continue to learn as the season progresses, but I’m really happy with where we are now in terms of development. I’ll need to be more committed behind the wheel in the new car. It doesn’t forgive as much as the old-style cars, so I need to be firm and tell the car exactly where I want to go. It’s a bigger challenge driving the Fiesta RS WRC, but it’s also great fun,” he added.
Latvala is also excited ahead of the new season. “Rally Sweden is a great place to start. I tested there for five days, focused on set-up work. By the last day I felt I had tried all the options and I knew what set-up I wanted for the rally. The Fiesta RS WRC handles well in the snow and its balance is brilliant. It’s shorter, so the weight is centrally located and it reacts quickly. The six-speed gearbox is a big improvement, and I worked hard on perfecting the gear ratios,” he said.
“I’m confident we’ll be competitive throughout the season. The biggest target for the team is to win the manufacturers’ title. To fight for the drivers’ title also would be a dream, but the manufacturers’ crown is key for Ford. If we can match consistency with speed, that would be the perfect situation. I feel relaxed. I’m not experiencing the same pressure as I did at the start of 2010, but I’m sure that when I get to Sweden and begin the recce, the butterflies will begin in my stomach,” he added.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive a third Fiesta RS WRC and the pair will chase points for the new Team Abu Dhabi. Their car will carry an identical livery to that of Hirvonen and Latvala. But entering the championship for Team Abu Dhabi promotes Al Qassimi to a top priority driver, offering wider testing opportunities and the bonus of a safety crew on asphalt events later in the year.
“I can’t wait for the season to start and I’m really looking forward to driving the new car in Sweden,” said Al Qassimi. “It’s completely different to anything I’ve driven in WRC before. It should be an interesting experience and a fresh challenge. This season we have high hopes to improve and make a real impact on the championship.”
* Rally Sweden marks the beginning of the team’s new partnership with Michelin and the French company will provide control rubber for the Fiesta RS WRCs throughout 2011. In Sweden the cars will use Michelin X-Ice North rubber, which will be fitted with 7mm studs to penetrate the snow and ice. Each car can carry two spare wheels.
* After Rally Sweden, the Ford Abu Dhabi team will test for five days on gravel in Portugal in preparation for Rally Mexico. Latvala will drive for the opening two days, with Hirvonen taking to the wheel for the final three days.
* Six other Fiesta RS WRCs are entered. Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor and Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson are nominated by the M-Sport Stobart Ford team, which has also entered Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin. Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino, FERM Power Tools World Rally Team’s Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte and P-G Andersson / Emil Axelsson complete the Fiesta RS WRC entries.