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PORTUGAL - Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team travels to Portugal next week aiming to strengthen its lead in both the manufacturers' and drivers' standings in the FIA World Rally Championship. Rally de Portugal (24 - 27 March) is the third round of the 13-event series, and provides the first opportunity for the new Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car to sample a European gravel encounter.
A debut victory for the Fiesta RS WRC in Sweden with Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen was followed by a double podium in Mexico earlier this month for the Finns and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila. Ford Abu Dhabi holds a 26-point lead in the manufacturers' championship, while Hirvonen is nine points clear in the drivers' standings.
After the specialist rounds in icebound Sweden and at altitude in Mexico, Rally de Portugal is the first of the traditional gravel rallies which form the bulk of the championship. As such, it is viewed as the first true form guideline for the season ahead.
The rally has a long history and enjoyed a place in the WRC when the championship was launched in 1973. Traditionally based on the west coast, the event dropped out of the championship in 2002. It was reborn in the Algarve holiday region in the south and returned to the series in 2007. The rally runs two months earlier than last year, with the prospect of cooler temperatures and possibly rain.
Based on the edge of Faro, the competition takes place in the hills above the town, blending fast open roads with more technical sections on hard and abrasive tracks. For the first time in 37 years the rally visits the capital city of Lisbon. Cars will be transported there on Thursday for the start ceremony and opening speed test, before returning to Faro by the same means ahead of three days of gravel action.
Hirvonen has finished all three of his previous starts, the 30-year-old's best result in 2009 when he finished second. "It's a challenging rally," he explained. "There are many sections with corners hiding just over crests and it's tricky, but crucial, to ensure the pace notes are accurate. It's a rally in which the more you learn the stages, the more you can identify the sections where you can go faster.
"The roads have a hard base and are abrasive, so tyre wear could be an issue, especially if temperatures are high. The nature of the roads is similar to Mexico but the altitude is much lower in Portugal, so we'll have full power and everything will happen that bit faster. I'm still learning this car and when I hear a pace note, I hesitate a fraction while I understand what speed and gear that note means. My driving isn't totally instinctive yet," he added.
This will also be the fourth start in Portugal for 25-year-old Latvala. "It's the most difficult gravel rally of the season. The roads are narrow with many blind crests. Trees and stones line the stages, both on the inside of corners where a driver looks to make cuts, and on the outside where a car slides wide if a driver approaches too quickly. The roads have a clay surface which is hard in dry conditions and demanding on tyres. However, if it rains they quickly become muddy and slippery," he said.
The Finn has no concerns that accidents there in the past two years will affect his performance. "Crashes are part of the sport and my accidents in Portugal are in the past. I prefer to focus on the future rather than what happened previously," he said.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr return to the series after missing the previous round in the team's third car. They are registered for points with Team Abu Dhabi and Al Qassimi will be eager to match his previous best finish in Portugal of eighth in 2009.
"It's great to be back after missing Rally Mexico," he said. "The season opener in Sweden proved highly challenging but I managed to pick up a point which is encouraging moving into Portugal. The historic Portuguese event is full of heritage and one of my favourite rallies on the calendar. I feel more accustomed to the conditions with the warm climate and gravel tracks that I've grown up with in Abu Dhabi. Hopefully I can build on these past experiences to produce another points-winning effort."
* The Michelin Latitude Cross gravel tyre will again be used by the Ford Abu Dhabi drivers. It was the first of the French company's range of WRC tyres to be developed and tested at the end of summer 2010. The rubber will be available in hard compound only. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the tyres and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Seven 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. Monster World Rally Team's Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino, Munchi's Ford World Rally Team's Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc and FERM Power Tools World Rally Team's Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte complete the registered championship entries from customer teams. Another Fiesta RS WRC is entered for Portuguese champions Bernardo Sousa / Antonio Costa.
* The team is currently preparing with a four-day test in Portugal, which started yesterday (Thursday). Hirvonen's two-day stint ends today, with Latvala taking the wheel on Saturday and Sunday.
* The rally marks the opening round of the FIA WRC Academy, the sport's all-new training programme for young drivers, which is supported by Ford. Twenty crews will compete over the first two days of the rally in identical Fiesta R2 rally cars, which have been supplied by Ford and prepared by M-Sport.
The route covers familiar territory in the Serra do Caldeirão hills above the Algarve coastline. Estádio Algarve, built on the edge of Faro for the 2004 European Soccer Championships is again the base. It hosts the single service park, but the super special stage inside the arena which started and closed the event will not be used. Instead the rally journeys 300km north to Lisbon on Thursday for the start ceremony and opening speed test over asphalt roads bordering the Jerónimos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once back in Faro, competitors face three long legs, each comprising two identical loops of stages. The only significant changes are the reintroduction of roads in the final leg last used in 2007. That 31.04km test is the longest of the weekend and the second pass will form the live TV Power Stage, with bonus points on offer to the fastest three drivers. Competitors tackle 17 stages covering 385.37km in a route of 1363.55km.