SALOU, Spain - Ford aims to end its official participation in the FIA World Rally Championship on a high note later this week when the 2012 season comes to a close in Spain.
After the decision to stop its factory team at the end of the year, Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila and team-mates Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson have targeted a successful finale at Rally de España (8 - 11 November).
Ford has already secured second in the manufacturers’ championship with the Fiesta RS World Rally Car. The destination of the title and the runner-up placings in the drivers’ series have already been decided, but both Ford pairings are involved in a three-way battle for third. Thirteen points cover the trio, with a maximum 28 available from Spain.
Rally de España is based in the Costa Daurada holiday resort of Salou, south-west of Barcelona, and is one of the most varied rounds of the season. Traditionally a pure asphalt fixture over smooth and flowing roads in the Tarragona region, it has evolved into a mixed surface event in recent years with the introduction of gravel speed tests.
Friday’s opening leg is 90% gravel, with several short asphalt sections included. The most demanding challenge will be the 44.02 km Terra Alta special stage which includes three surface changes. Latvala and Solberg’s Fiesta RS WRCs will be prepared to full gravel specification for the day, after which the team will convert them to asphalt trim for the final two legs.
The sealed surface roads are fast and can be compared with a race circuit in their characteristics. They are smooth, often abrasive and can become slippery as drivers cut corners to save vital tenths of a second, dragging stones and dirt onto the surface.
Latvala is nine points ahead of Solberg in the points standings and the 27-year-old Finn is confident after what he described as his best asphalt performance en route to second in France last month. He finished third in Spain last year, his best result there from eight starts.
“It’s a dream of mine to win an asphalt rally and I’ve always thought that Spain could give me the best opportunity,” he said. “But to be able to challenge I must be in a good position after the opening day on gravel. A strong first leg will give me a platform from which I can go out and do my best over the last two days on asphalt.
“The roads are smoother and wider than elsewhere in the series. They’re well used by the public so they’re maintained to a high level. A lot of repair work has been done to ensure there are far fewer places where we can cut corners, there are only a couple of stages where this is possible now. Cutting drags a lot of dirt onto the roads and so this means conditions are more even for all of us.
Latvala completed more than 200 km of testing last week in mixed conditions. “It was damp and cool in the morning and full dry later in the day. It was good experience because the rally is later in the calendar than normal and those are the type of conditions that we will likely encounter,” he added.
Solberg has plenty of Spanish experience, the 37-year-old Norwegian preparing for his 11th start. His best result was in 2010 when he finished second. He is buoyed by a recent 250km asphalt test, which he described as ‘the best test session of the year’.
“I really enjoyed the work we did and it’s given me extra confidence for the rally,” he enthused. “My target is clear – to go there and try to win. That’s more important to me than chasing a medal for finishing third in the championship. If I take third in the points, then that’s a bonus, but a gold medal for winning the rally would mean more than a bronze in the championship.
“It’s the final round and both titles are decided, so there will be a lot of people with nothing to lose who will be pushing hard. It’s a great rally and the asphalt is fast and smooth. It’s the closest the WRC comes to competing on a race circuit. Mixed surfaces bring something different to the series, but I’m not keen on gravel and asphalt in the same stage. It should be one or the other,” said Solberg.
Most of the route is familiar from the past two years, but innovations for 2012 include a Barcelona city centre start ceremony on Thursday evening and a special stage on Salou seafront on Friday.
Salou’s PortAventura theme park hosts the single service park and the action spans the Tarragona region. After Thursday morning’s qualifying, drivers journey into Barcelona for the start in the Plaza de la Catedral.
Friday’s opening leg west of Salou is 90% gravel and includes a new test early in the morning and a short mixed surface evening stage along the town’s seafront. The second asphalt leg heads north-west and contains two passes over the 45.97 km El Priorat test, one of the longest of the season.
The final day is closer to Salou and includes the Power Stage, with bonus points on offer to the fastest three drivers. Competitors tackle 18 stages covering 405.46km in a route of 1391.73 km.