The all-new Ford Focus RS World Rally
Car, the Blue Oval's challenger for the 2006 world championship, will make its first public appearance on next weekend's Rally Australia - and neither Toni Gardemeister or Roman Kresta can contain their anticipation.
The two drivers will tackle the 16th and final round of the 2005 championship as part of the car's test and development programme, working in a more appropriate environment as preparation for the Focus' first 'real' competitive outing, on January's Monte Carlo Rally.
The new car has been designed and built by an experienced engineering team led by M-Sport's technical director, Christian Loriaux, with close co-operation from Ford TeamRS. Not due to be officially launched until December's Bologna Motor Show, the new car is based on the equally new Focus ST road car, which is currently being launched across Europe. It is less than eleven months since the initial designs were started, but, in the last few weeks, the car has completed almost 900km of asphalt and gravel testing.
"Everyone involved in the programme has worked long hours to ensure the new car is ready in time for Rally Australia," said BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson, "We're delighted with the way the car has performed in initial testing, and we're ready to move onto the next level of the development strategy, to evaluate it in a competitive environment because it's under the pressures of a rally that we will learn most.
"We're not going to Australia to win. We're going there to test, to learn more about the car and to analyse the data and feedback for next year."
Despite the team playing down the chances of success, 30-year old Gardemeister will be looking to make his sixth Rally Australia his most successful yet, aiming to better the two sixth-place finishes he has to his credit.
"It's exciting to think about driving the new car for the first time," the Finn said, "It looks fantastic and I'm impressed with it, although I've not driven it yet - the shakedown will be the first time I get the opportunity to do that. Of course, it will be difficult because I don't know how it will behave, but that's the kind of information the team wants to learn."
Kresta has the added handicap of not having started a Rally Australia before, but the 29-year old Czech has some knowledge of the unique stages there, and is looking forward to getting his hands on the new Focus.
"I was there with a former team in 2002 and, although I didn't do the recce, I checked some of the stages to get a feel for the roads," he revealed, "They appear fast and narrow in places, with a lot of trees close to the edge of the road. It will be difficult as a 'first-timer', but I'm used to that this season. My aim is to learn as much about the nature of the roads as possible.
"Of course, I'm excited about driving the new Focus RS WRC. I went to M-Sport to fix my seat position after the Rally Catalunya and I drove the car slowly around the grounds of Dovenby Hall - for about 300 metres. Now I can't wait to drive it at speed on the shakedown. The technology is fantastic but that's what you expect from a new car."
There will be two privately-entered 2004-specification Focus RS cars in Australia driven, as they were in Spain recently, by Antony Warmbold and Dani Solà.