AMMAN, Jordan - BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team journeys to the lowest point on earth in the Middle East this week. The squad, which leads the manufacturers' standings, tackles the Jordan Rally (1 - 3 April) which is based 420 metres below sea level on the arid shores of the Dead Sea.
The rally debuted in the WRC in 2008 when it became the first round hosted by an Arab country since 1976. Ford drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen won two years ago and the Finns, along with team-mates and fellow countrymen Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila, have their sights set on another strong performance in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
The low-level location of the gravel speed tests clustered near the Dead Sea will offer a boost to the performance of the Focus RS WRC. That is in contrast, in the recent Rally Mexico where low air pressure at altitudes of up to 2,700 metres meant less oxygen was available to burn the fuel in the engine, resulting in less power. However, temperatures that are expected to approach 30ºC will ensure the power output will not be as high below sea level as it would be with cooler and wetter conditions.
The rally takes advantage of new-for-2010 rules to run from Thursday to Saturday, to fit in with the Islamic weekend. The heaviest rain in Jordan for 20 years earlier this year decimated large parts of the route, making many scheduled special stages impassable and severely damaging the service park. Huge efforts, involving the army and the Government, helped rebuild the roads although the damage in some sections was too great to repair and the route has been slightly shortened.
The desert roads are gravel but 29-year-old Hirvonen said the stages were unlike any other loose surface round. "The surface is hard and it feels like driving on asphalt. There will be loose gravel on the surface for the first pass through the stages, so the car will need a slightly soft set-up. But when the stages are repeated and the roads are clean the set-up will be harder, almost like we use on asphalt. There are no ditches there and in some bends it's possible to make big cuts, so we can't make the car too low. It's a compromise set-up between gravel and asphalt," he said.
"It's the most difficult rally of the year on which to make pace notes. It's fast and high speed sections are punctuated by small crests. But suddenly the rhythm can change and you come over a crest to find a series of hairpin bends. There are no trees or bushes in the desert to use as sight lines so the notes must be pin-point accurate. We've analysed the reasons why we weren't as competitive as we had hoped on the last round in Mexico and I'm confident we'll be fully competitive in Jordan," added Hirvonen, who lies second in the drivers' table.
Latvala finished seventh in Jordan in 2008, after lying in the top three for much of the rally. Like Hirvonen, it is the road surface and the rhythm changes that he identifies as key aspects of the event.
"In 2008 the roads had a fine layer of sand lying on top of a hard, smooth base and it made them slippery during the first pass," said Latvala, who hopes to celebrate his 25th birthday in style on the final day of the rally. "The sand was swept away and in the second pass the roads were so hard and grippy that you could see black braking marks from the tyres on the surface – just like asphalt. It has rained hard there recently so I expect the surface might be a little softer and more loose this year.
"The roads are man-made in places and it means there is no natural flow to them so they are difficult to follow. They often turn immediately after a crest and I was nearly caught out on a few occasions two years ago. My pace notes were not accurate enough and I need to improve them on this week's recce.
"The roads were built with rocks as a base and they are visible on the side of the track. In corners where it's possible to take a cut, these stones are dragged out by the cars and it's easy to damage the suspension by hitting a rock while trying to save a second or two," added Latvala.
* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide BP Ford Abu Dhabi with one regulation tyre pattern. The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in hard compound only. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* The team completed a successful pre-event test for both the Jordan Rally and next month's Rally of Turkey in southern Sardinia last week. Both Hirvonen and Latvala drove a Focus RS WRC. Hirvonen completed 778km, with his team-mate covering 367km.
* Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr, who were due to drive a third Focus RS WRC for the team, will now be at the wheel of a Fiesta S2000 in the FIA Middle East Rally Championship category. After victory on the second round in Kuwait earlier this month, they will continue their title challenge in Jordan. The MERC category is held over the second and third legs of the main event.
* For the third consecutive rally, Ford is the most popular manufacturer in the entry with 10 of the 35 entry cars carrying the Blue Oval. Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor and Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are nominated by the Stobart M-Sport Ford team in Focus RS WRCs, while Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc will drive for the Munchi's Ford squad in a similar car. Five Fiesta S2000 crews will start in the third round of the S-WRC support series.
There are few changes from Jordan's 2008 WRC debut, with the service park based at the Dead Sea. Most stages are fully or partially below sea level west of the capital city of Amman, although new roads north of the city will be used on the opening morning after the start ceremony amid the ruins of the stunning former Roman city of Jerash. They journey through historical and biblical sites around the Jordan Valley and Rumman forests, including the Baptism Site, where Jesus was baptised in the Jordan River, and Mount Nebo, where Moses looked over the Promised Land before he died and was buried there. All but one of the 11 different stages will be used twice and some sections of road will be used four times. 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 Jordan - Palestine border. Drivers tackle 21 stages covering 339.48km in a route of 911.78km.