JORDAN - Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, enjoying the high of leading both the manufacturers' and drivers' standings in the FIA World Rally Championship, takes its advantage to the lowest point on earth this week. The Jordan Rally (14 - 16 April) is based on the arid shores of the Dead Sea, 420 metres below sea level, and the desert conditions encountered in this fourth round are unique to the series.
The team tops the manufacturers' table by 10 points with the Fiesta RS World Rally Car after three of the 13 rounds. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lead the drivers' championship while team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila lie third, after a clean sweep of podiums to date.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan hosts the WRC for the third time and, as in 2010, the rally breaks with tradition to run from Thursday to Saturday to match the Islamic weekend. The event never strays far from its Dead Sea base, but visits many historical and biblical sites, including the place where Jesus Christ was baptised in the Jordan River, and Mount Nebo, where Moses was buried.
Most of the hard gravel roads, many of which were purpose-built for the rally's WRC debut in 2008, lie below sea-level. Their man-made characteristics make them difficult for drivers to 'read', as often the tracks do not follow natural contours. The barren desert landscape means sight lines such as trees or bushes are absent, adding to the challenge.
Thirty-year-old Hirvonen won the 2008 rally and understands the specific demands of Jordan's speed tests. "On every other rally during the season there is a landmark behind the crests that can be used as a guide to position the car – such as a large rock, a telegraph pole or a tree. In Jordan they're absent and all that can be seen is blue sky. A driver can't see which way the road goes over the crest and it makes the accuracy of pace notes crucial," he said.
"The gravel roads are a mix of fast and twisty sections which follow the mountains, but they're incredibly hard. When the roads are clean it's like driving on asphalt, and you can see black rubber marks before hazards where drivers have braked," he said.
Hirvonen tested Michelin's new tyres during last week's four-day test in Spain, which he shared with Latvala. "I was surprised how strong they were. On my second day the road was full of rocks and sharp stones and I didn't suffer any punctures. If they can cope with that, they should cope with virtually anything. The tyres are harder and the car doesn't bounce as much as with the previous rubber, so I made small changes to the suspension settings but nothing major," he added.
Latvala finished second last year and the 26-year-old Finn feels confident after completing 567km in testing. "We worked with the tyres and the set-up of the differentials and suspension on rough roads," he said. "I had a very positive feeling with Michelin's new tyres. Initially they felt slightly heavier, but once they warmed up the feeling was the same as the older ones and the performance was as good.
"It was one of the longest and hardest tests I have ever completed, but I'm really happy with the outcome. We even tried driving with a flat tyre to replicate what could happen if we puncture during a stage, and I was also encouraged by that.
"Jordan is one of the most difficult rounds of the championship, especially the Jordan River stage which is more than 40km. That's where the big time gaps could appear and the two passes over that test in the second leg could be where the rally is won and lost," added Latvala.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive the team's third car and are nominated for points for Team Abu Dhabi. Orr hopes to have fully recovered from rib injuries suffered during the previous round in Portugal
"I have competed in Jordan many times and although the conditions will be familiar, the rocky terrain can be difficult with lots of crests and hills and nothing to define the edge of the road. It will be hugely inspiring to represent the region at the highest level, and have my Middle Eastern fans encouraging me in support," said Al Qassimi, whose best WRC result in Jordan is ninth in 2008.
* Michelin's new Latitude Cross gravel tyre will be used by the Ford Abu Dhabi drivers. The French company has played its 'joker', which allows one new tyre construction during the season, and the new rubber will be used for the first time in competition. It will be available in hard compound. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the tyres and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Five 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. Munchi's Ford World Rally Team's Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc and FERM Power Tools World Rally Team's Dennis Kuipers / Bjorn Degandt complete the registered championship entries from customer teams.
* The team revised its travel plans to reach Jordan without travelling though Syria, the scene of severe political unrest recently. Its transport vehicles travelled directly from Faro, base of the previous round in Portugal, to Trieste in Italy. From there they journeyed by sea to Haifa in Israel, before completing the journey to the Dead Sea by road. The competition cars were transported to Luxembourg before being flown directly to Amman.
* The rally marks the second round of the SWRC support series and three privately-entered Ford Fiesta S2000 cars are listed for Nasser Al-Attiyah / Giovanni Bernacchini, Bernardo Sousa / Antonio Costa and Frigyes Turan / Gabor Zsiros. A fourth Fiesta S2000 that is not registered for the championship is entered for Spyros Pavlides / Denis Giraudet.
There are few changes from last year, with the Dead Sea service park again used as the hub of the event. Most stages are fully or partially below sea level west and south of the capital city of Amman. The main change is the reintroduction to the first leg of the twisty Ma'in stage, which takes competitors up to 600 metres on newly-built roads. After a start ceremony on Thursday morning in the stunning former Roman city of Jerash, the route passes through many historical and biblical sites in the Jordan Valley. All 10 stages will be used twice and the second leg contains the marathon 41.45km Jordan River test, a twisty stretch of road which runs north to south through 'no man's land' alongside the border between Jordan and Israel. Drivers tackle 20 stages covering 333.04km in a route of 1008.89km, of which 33 per cent is competitive.