SALOU, Spain – The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team journeys to northern Spain this week for the FIA World Rally Championship's first traditional mixed gravel and asphalt round since 1996.
Rally de España (21 - 24 October) is the penultimate event in the 13-round series and the new format is a throwback to the early 1990s when such rallies were not uncommon in the championship. In recent years the rally has been a pure asphalt encounter. However, to celebrate its 20th year in the WRC, organisers have reverted to the event's original format of mixed surface competition.
Drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila will drive their Focus RS World Rally Cars in full gravel specification during next Friday's opening leg. Their cars will then be converted into asphalt trim for the final two days of action.
To add an extra challenge, the opening leg will not be completely gravel. Of the three different stages, one is all-dirt and the other two are mixed, with a higher ratio of loose surface roads. The most demanding will be the opening 35.94km Terra Alta test which includes frequent changes in surface over three gravel and two asphalt sections.
The last WRC round to use the mixed format in this way was Italy's Sanremo Rally in 1996. Last year's Cyprus Rally blended one day of asphalt speed tests with two days of loose roads, but cars used full gravel specification and tyres on both surfaces.
The rally is based in the holiday resort of Salou south-west of Barcelona. The dirt stages in the Tarragona region will be new to all drivers, although roads in this area are frequently used for testing, and their nature will remain unknown to competitors until they begin their recce on Tuesday.
The asphalt stages are fast and can be compared to a race circuit in their characteristics. Although the roads are smooth, they are often abrasive and can become slippery as drivers cut the open corners to shave tenths of a second from their times, dragging stones and dirt onto the surface. However, over the years organisers have worked on the roads to reduce the number of opportunities to cut and provide more equal driving conditions for all.
Hirvonen, who has seven starts in Spain to his name, claimed his first WRC podium on this rally in 2005. He also claimed third place in both 2008 and 2009.
"The format of this event will make it interesting. I'm happy with a mixed format, but I would prefer that individual stages are held on just one surface. A car in gravel set-up is higher off the ground and it will move around a lot on asphalt. The driving is less precise and it will be important to quickly find the limit when the road changes from dirt to asphalt," he said.
"When the rally moves to pure asphalt for the second and third legs, conditions will be more consistent. These are the cleanest roads we drive during the season because there are fewer opportunities to cut corners and drag dirt onto the road than there used to be. There are fewer surprises here than the previous round in France," added the 30-year-old Finn.
Latvala is preparing for his seventh start in Spain and is confident after strong performances on both surfaces in recent months. "The roads here are asphalt in its purest sense and resemble a race circuit. I enjoy it more and more and my driving on it has improved. Sunday's long 42km stage is probably the best asphalt stage I've driven," he said.
"I didn't enjoy the old first day stages and most of those aren't in the itinerary this year. They were difficult with many cuts and now they have been removed there will be fewer cuts than ever. The stages on Saturday and Sunday suit me much better.
"I'm looking forward to the loose surface stages, although I will need to be careful on the asphalt sections in the first leg. The switches in surface mean a change of rhythm. When the road moves from dirt to asphalt, you need to be as smooth as possible and keep the driving clean and tidy. Braking is more difficult on asphalt with gravel tyres. The roads are fast, smooth and wide and the car can move around a lot with gravel tyres," added the 25-year-old Finn.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive the team's third Focus RS WRC on the Abu Dhabi driver's fourth Spanish start. "I enjoy Rally de España and like driving the Catalonia roads. There is quite a lot of loose gravel in parts of the asphalt stages which present an extra challenge, so Michael and I will be using the recce to judge how we plan to approach the event," said Al Qassimi.
* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide three tyre specifications for the BP Ford Abu Dhabi drivers. On the opening leg hard compound Scorpion gravel tyres must be used. For the final two days the standard PZero asphalt tyre will be available primarily in hard compound, but with a limited amount of soft compound rubber for use in cold or wet weather. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber in the event of rain or mud and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Four other Focus RS WRCs are entered. Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are nominated in the Stobart M-Sport Ford team and will again be joined in the points-scoring line-up by Monster World Rally Team's Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino. Argentines Federico Villagra / José Diaz will drive for the Munchi's Ford team and Hungarians Frigyes Turán / Gábor Zsiros will drive a privately-entered Focus RS WRC. Two Fiesta S2000 cars and nine Fiesta R2 cars are entered, five of which are contesting the penultimate round of the Fiesta SportTrophy International.
Despite the introduction of gravel roads, the rest of the rally's infrastructure remains the same. The service park is based at Salou's PortAventura theme park, an hour's drive from Barcelona, and the stages span the Tarragona region. Following Thursday evening's start ceremony on Salou seafront, each day comprises two passes over identical loops of stages. Friday's opening leg journeys west of Salou while the second day, the longest of the rally, is based closer to the town. The final leg heads west of Salou and includes the marathon 42.04km El Priorat, an extended version of last year's test, which opens each loop. The 16 stages cover 344.88km of competition in a route of 1301.70km.