Ford BP Rallye Sport will start this week's asphalt Rallye de France - Tour de Corse boosted by the team's best combined performance of the season on the same surface in Italy earlier this month.

The Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars of Markko Martin and Michael Park and team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Pr?vot finished third and fifth on the Rallye Sanremo, enhancing the car's reputation as the fastest World Rally Car of all on asphalt.

After winning 10 of the 22 speed tests in Germany on its sealed surface debut in July, Martin won seven of the 14 special stages in Italy in his Castrol-backed Focus RS - the 50 per cent win ratio far in excess of any other team. It promises much for the second rally in October's three-event mini-tour of the Mediterranean and the first of two rallies on consecutive weekends, a situation unrivalled in the history of the FIA World Rally Championship and one which stretches teams' logistics to the limit.

The craggy island of Corsica has a reputation for providing one of the most difficult rallies in the series. Restored to its Autumn date after being held in March last season, the weather is notoriously changeable at this time of year, with the mountainous terrain and remote location only adding to the unpredictability. Dry roads and warm sunshine can quickly switch to torrential rain and streaming asphalt, placing huge importance on tyre selection and reliable weather reports from team personnel stationed in the mountains.

Much of this year's route has changed, continuing the evolution of the rally over the past decade and beyond. Many of the incredibly twisty sections that earned the event the nickname 'The Rally of 10,000 Bends' have been dropped over the years and average speeds on this 12th round of the 14-event championship are likely to be very similar to the Rallye Sanremo.

"The roads in Corsica are a bit wider and more open than those in Italy," said Martin, who has finished the rally on both occasions he has started. "They're still twisty but I would describe them as 'quicker twisty'. The stages I have competed on there are quite good. Organisers have moved away from the old-type of stages with broken asphalt and huge drops but there are a lot of new sections this year so we won't really know what they are like until we do the recce.

"The rally should suit the Focus RS, which I think can now be described as the best car on any surface. We proved in Italy that it has the pace to win asphalt rallies by setting fastest time on half the stages and from a championship point of view we must win the next two rallies. Mathematically we can win the world title. We must have a good run and we need some outside help because we need our rivals to have some bad luck. But it can happen. Never say never and expect the unexpected," added the 27-year-old Estonian.

Duval received a major boost to his confidence with fifth in Italy and the 22-year-old Belgian believes he could do even better in Corsica. "It's one of my favourite rallies in the championship," he said. "My experience of the stages is quite small because although I've started the rally twice, I've not finished. But I don't think that's a big problem because much of the rally is new this year and so most drivers will have to make a lot of new pace notes.

"Fifth place was good for me in Italy, especially as there were so few top drivers who retired. If I can find the same kind of speed in Corsica and the retirement rate is higher then I think it is possible to finish on the podium," he added.

Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will compete in Corsica for the first time behind the wheel of a 2002 specification Focus RS run by M-Sport. A first day retirement in Italy deprived them of valuable experience on asphalt stages and so 23-year-old Hirvonen is hoping for a steady drive to the finish.

"It was disappointing to retire so early but that's the nature of the sport," he said. "I learned something about how to drive on traditional asphalt stages but we didn't do so many kilometres so I hope the biggest part of my learning is about to come. I've never even been to the island so all I know about the roads is what I've heard from my team-mates and my fellow Finns. I just want to finish and gain as much experience as I can."

 

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