Two teenagers will debut Ford's exciting all-new Fiesta rally car in next season's FIA Junior World Rally Championship.

Eighteen-year-old Finn Jari-Matti Latvala and 19-year-old Zimbabwean Conrad Rautenbach will each be behind the wheel of a sporty three-door Fiesta, inspired by the Ford Rallye Concept car launched at the 2002 Birmingham Motor Show to critical acclaim.

Latvala will be run by Italian team Astra Racing while Rautenbach's programme will be operated by British-based Chris Birkbeck Rallysport, both of whom have considerable experience of running Ford cars in the junior category. The drivers will debut the stunning Fiesta on the second round of the championship in Greece in June, following the car's scheduled homologation on 1 March. They will use the 2003-specification Puma for the opening round, the Monte Carlo Rally, in January.

The move to the JWRC is a step up Ford's Ladder of Opportunity for Latvala, who completed his first full season of rallying this year. The youngster impressed with his speed at the wheel of a Ford Focus WRC, which took him to top 10 finishes on the Greek and British rounds of the World Rally Championship and victory on the final round of the British Rally Championship.

"It's been an incredible learning year and I now feel I'm ready to take the next step to the Junior World Rally Championship," said Latvala, who will be co-driven by fellow Finn Miikka Anttila. "Rallying at this level is something I've wanted to do for as long as I can remember, and to be able to continue my development programme in a Ford Fiesta in the 2004 Junior World Championship is like a dream come true. I recently had the chance to undertake a short test in the Fiesta and I am very excited by its potential."

The teenager is the latest Finn to come under the management of the experienced Timo Jouhki, who said that Latvala's seven-round JWRC programme could be supplemented by additional outings on world championship events in WRC and Group N cars.

"The JWRC is a good way for a young driver to learn about the different events. His main aim will be to finish at the top next season and he will undoubtedly have some healthy competition for this spot," said Joukhi.

The relationship between Astra Racing and Jouhki's Promo Racing company stretches back to the early 1990s when Tommi M?kinen drove an Astra-prepared car on selected WRC events. In recent years the team has also worked with Toni Gardemeister and Mikko Hirvonen.

"We are excited to be working with Jari-Matti for next season," said Astra Racing's Luca Pregliasco. "We will support his first outing in a Ford Puma for Rallye Monte Carlo while we work up to the first appearance of the Ford Fiesta once homologation has been completed. We have seen Jari-Matti's talent this season and we are looking forward to showing what this young man can do behind the wheel of the exciting package offered by the Ford Fiesta," he said.

Rautenbach finished second in this year's FIA African Rally Championship and easily won the 1600 Cup in the series. He has only been rallying for two years and at the age of 16 became the youngest driver to score FIA African Rally Championship points when he finished seventh in his first ever rally, the 2001 Dunlop Zimbabwe Rally Challenge.

"My original plan was to compete in the 2004 British Rally Championship but after discussions with a number of teams we have decided to take the further step to the Junior World Rally Championship," he said. "The Ford programme offered by Chris Birkbeck Rallysport is impressive and I'm looking forward to beginning the championship."

Rautenbach will move to the United Kingdom next month in preparation for starting a degree in Business Studies at Oxford Brooks University in January. He will be co-driven by fellow Zimbabwean Peter Marsh.

The programme consists of a two-year development package. "Conrad has his sights set on earning a WRC drive in the future and as such has taken a sensible yet determined approach to his move to the UK," explained team manager Chris Birkbeck. "The first year will be about learning and developing both the events and the Fiesta with a view to a real push at the JWRC title in 2005. It will be fantastic to work with this talented young man at this stage of his career," he said.

Such has been the interest in the Fiesta that Chris Birkbeck Rallysport is investigating running the car in other series, including the British Rally Championship.

Ford Team RS director Jost Capito said he was delighted to see Ford Rallye Sport's youth programme reaping results by encouraging rising young rally stars to stake their claim to the Fiesta.

"We are delighted by the calibre of those interested who are ready to take the next step up Ford's Ladder of Opportunity to further their careers. The two drivers confirmed come from opposite ends of the rally spectrum and highlight the fact that the Fiesta is seen as a viable contender by many for next season," he said.

Capito acknowledged that as well as the strong support programme for the Ford Fiesta, the fact that homologation of the car was due during the first quarter of 2004 was an added incentive for interested parties as it gave them the ability to grow and develop with the car.

 

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