Click here to visit the Motorsports page for all the latest news and information.
BOROVETS, Bulgaria - BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team renews its FIA World Rally Championship campaign in Bulgaria after a six-week summer break. However, holiday opportunities were restricted as the team focused on preparations for the first asphalt round of the season and the championship's first visit to Rally Bulgaria (8 - 11 July).
After two wins for the Focus RS World Rally Car from the opening six loose surface fixtures, the emphasis of the series changes noticeably during the second half of the season. The eastern European event is the first of four sealed-surface rallies in the final seven events. Drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila have geared their preparations accordingly for the first asphalt WRC round since Rally de España last October.
Hirvonen and Lehtinen won the recent Serbia Rally, a non-championship encounter held on roads similar to those the Finns will discover in Bulgaria. They have also covered 526km during two days' testing in southern France, a follow-up to three days testing in England in May.
From 1970 until 2001 Rally Bulgaria was located in the Black Sea resorts of Zlatni Piassatzi and Albena. In 2002 it moved to the south-west of the country and is now based in the ski resort of Borovets at the foot of Rila Mountain, 60km from the capital city of Sofia. As it is the country's WRC debut, drivers have no previous experience of the speed tests to fall back on. However, Tim Jackson, Latvala's rally engineer, attended last year's candidate event to gather data.
"The special stages are very, very fast," he said. "The asphalt is broken in places and so the surface is frequently bumpy. It will be tricky for drivers to judge the surface changes and to get used to the high speeds. The roads are different to the asphalt the drivers have been used to in the WRC over the last few years. I would describe them as a mix of those found in Ireland and Corsica, with the speeds of Spain. The surface is closest to the roads in Corsica and it will be very slippery if it rains."
Hirvonen, 29, has viewed photographs and footage of the roads and admits it will be a tough rally. "The stages look fast and in that situation it's important to be careful with the car and yourself. A mistake on a fourth gear bend means you lose more momentum, and time, on the following long straight than a mistake on a first or second gear bend in a twisty section.
"I've completed plenty of asphalt work recently, to shake off the rust after a long time without a WRC rally on that surface and to improve my technique. Asphalt driving doesn't come as easily to me as it does on gravel. I know what to do but I need to get into the frame of mind where I do it automatically, without having to think about it. I identified areas in which I needed to improve and I feel good about my driving now," added Hirvonen. His only previous visit to Bulgaria was while driving home from April's Rally of Turkey when flights were grounded due to the volcanic eruption in Iceland.
Latvala was also boosted by his test. "The whole team has worked hard and I feel we've taken a step forward with both myself and the car. Previously, I sometimes I felt uncomfortable with my asphalt driving. During the test I firstly concentrated on getting back into the rhythm of driving on the surface. Then I focused on consistency – keeping my driving tidy and avoiding big cuts in bends. I continued the development work that the team began with Mikko. It was nothing major, a few small things related to car set-up. I was happy with how the two days went," said the 25-year-old Finn.
The weather often plays a crucial part in the outcome of asphalt rallies and drivers will have the benefit of safety crews for the first time since Rally Ireland in 2009. These crews drive the stages before the competitors to offer advice on tyre selection and to highlight the changing conditions of the roads.
"For the first time this season tyre choice could be a factor. The weather in the mountains is always unpredictable and streaming wet roads can quickly become dry, and vice-versa. It can be challenging to get things right and 'reading' the weather could play an important part. When it's raining in the service park it might be dry on the stages so accurate information is vital. We have to be ready for everything and if we find ourselves with the wrong tyres for the conditions, we have to ensure we make the best of it," added Latvala.
* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide two tyre specifications for the BP Ford Abu Dhabi drivers. 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 spares.
* Two other Focus RS WRCs are entered. Debutants Per-Gunnar Andersson / Jonas Andersson and Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are nominated by the Stobart M-Sport Ford team. Private Ford Fiesta S2000 cars will be crewed by Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor and Dennis Kuipers / Fred Miclotte.
* Rally Bulgaria formed part of Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr season programme. However, Al Qassimi, who is continuing his pursuit of a second FIA Middle East Rally Championship title, will not now start in Bulgaria. The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority-backed driver will rejoin the team at Rally Finland later this month to mark the emirate's third anniversary in the WRC.
While Borovets is the rally base, the event is centred 25km to the east in the spa town of Dolna Banya, which hosts the single service park. After Thursday evening's ceremonial start in Samokov, the opening leg is based south-east of Dolna Banya, around the Batak and Belmeken lakes. The second leg is the longest and covers territory in the same area. Sunday's final leg is the shortest and is based north-east of the service park. The second and third legs both use roads used in the opposite direction the previous day. Drivers face 14 speed tests, covering 354.10km, in a route of 1069.56km before the finish ceremony in Borovets on Sunday afternoon.