For the final part of our Ford focus rally series, intrepid Crash.net rogue reporter Andy Stobart went along to the final round of the 2003 World Rally Championship as a guest of Ford to get a taste of the pre rally preparations. Now, on the brink of the start of the 2004 WRC season, he reports his findings.

Believe it or not, it's a hard life being a motorsport journalist. For every exotic location where motorsport takes place, there's a cold, wet and windy former airbase to slap you back to reality. Where once a day at a motorsport event for me was a relaxed affair sat on a grassy bank enjoying the fun, they now are frenzied affairs with long days and far too much time spent outside race transporters whilst drivers get down into their Reg Grundies ready for interviews.

Unfortunately, a racing driver's preferred attire for an interview with the press is in their underpants. Apart from on TV, of course. Though, thinking about it, the motorsport holy grail of getting a better female audience could well be achieved that way. But only if the drivers start to think about what they wear under their overalls for race day; no more novelty underwear to be worn on race day should be included somewhere in the FIA blue book...Anyway...

So, when the opportunity to sample a bit of hospitality comes up, it's grasped with both hands. Every once in a while manufacturers and teams decide to try to bring along some of the mainstream motoring press to motorsport events, and every once in a while a motorsport journalist interloper can sneak into their ranks.

The subtle distinction between motorsport and motoring journalist brings a whole different quality of life. This becomes immediately apparent when I arrive at the hotel for the build-up days to the Wales Rally GB in a borrowed 1989 Renault 21. The car, resplendent in white, with cream doors and flagrant interior aroma courtesy of Marlboro, sticks out more than slightly when parked next to the gleaming press vehicles driven by the motoring press guys.

At check-in I'm presented with a Ford branded umbrella as a gift. Clever touch that by Ford, as if there's anything that will certainly be used in the coming days, given that this is Wales, then it's an umbrella. Precipitation is rather a familiar friend as anyone who's ever visited Wales, especially at rally time, can attest.

In keeping with the slick operation of the whole M Sport / Ford rally effort, our itinerary is well mapped out for us - first stop the bar! Clearly with a good handle on their guests, we're taken to one of the trendier bars in Cardiff's vibrant city centre and kept lubricated for the evening as we meet and greet the main players behind the M Sport / Ford rally effort.

Whilst my fellow hacks continue to attack the alcohol, I've clearly had enough when I attempt to convince the M Sport team manager that, contrary to our appearance, motorsport journalists in fact make excellent racing and / or rally drivers, and can be called on at a moment's notice to participate in any event. Drawing comparisons to method acting - in order to write about and empathise with the very best racing drivers in the world, we are also spectacularly well honed in our racecraft and car control - my attempts to get a go in the Focus WRC seems to be falling on deaf ears, so I return to the bar for more vital vitamin, mineral and hops replenishment to keep my body in prime physical condition.

From the bar to a feed. And no kebab house either, instead Cardiff's finest Italian restaurant, Topo Gigio. This is a sit down affair, and a chance to talk further about Ford's rally effort. I'm sat next to Malcolm Wilson, a man who talks, sleeps and breathes rallying so much he even has one named after him.

Wilson outlines, over pasta and wine, the dramatic change in philosophy that the 2003 Focus was in relation to its predecessor, and the level of technical expertise that goes in to a WRC car these days. For some reason rallying doesn't give off the impression that it's as technically advanced as circuit racing, but that impression is very far from the truth. The amount of computing and telemetry that goes into these cars is sufficient to shame NASA.

After food we're taken by the hand and lead back to the hotel and the hotel bar. Throughout all of this PR girls are on hand to lead you about and make sure you don't get lost. As it turns out this means you end up spending most of your day following them around. At motorsport events you get told off for following PR girls all day (that job being the domain of the photographers), but here it's actively encouraged. And they even buy you drinks. Great. Really great.

The morning brings a trip to the recce stage and near death. Rally drivers, contrary to appearances otherwise, are quite a clever bunch. So, with limited shakedown time on the day before the rally start, the fact that the route to the shakedown area is also on a loose gravel surface just like the shakedown stage means that you can get some practice on the way to the stage. This road, however, is also the route the spectator traffic uses...

So, after watching several runs through the stage, it came to time to depart in the quest for breakfast. And it's now that we discover that these fabulous PR girls are also a rather adept and practical bunch seemingly not phased at the prospect of ending world famous rally driver's last WRC outing prematurely.

It seems the rallying guys use the route to the stage as if it was a stage every time they drive it during the day. Loaded up in the Ford Galaxy with our lovely PR guide at the wheel, we descended the gravel track and as we rounded a blind hairpin bend we meet a very sideways Citroen. Hello Colin...

We could see the headlines now. McRae taken out of rally by Galaxy-load of Journos. 'Those bastards cost me my last rally,' McRae would say in rather colourful Scots. "We were only after some free food," a beleaguered motoring journalist said at the scene, "talking of which I've just seen a burger van..."

The first practical demonstration of the Galaxy's superb anti-lock braking system over, we continue our descent, only to meet Spaniard Carlos Sainz in pretty similar circumstances. Second near death experience of the morning over, we continue our drive to the Ford Rally service area in safety.

Back at base and the enormity of the support team is apparent. Where once was gravel car park is now a four-bay service area, a hospitality unit, fine restaurant, computer centre and anything else you care to think of relevant to the rally effort. That all is this temporary and will be loaded up and taken away come Sunday night is pretty impressive, and all the faces from the previous night are now hard at work doing the serious business of preparing the rally cars for their duties.

Whilst being serviced the Focus looks awesome, the amount of technology going into the car and things like the near-horizontal radiator being notable elements. The engine way is interesting that way, as the engine is set so low and far back, whilst the comedy appearance of the driver and co-driver sitting so low in the car never fails to amuse me.

So, just a glimpse of Ford's WRC rally effort in action, and there is so much to admire. The diversity of the challenges that they meet during the course of the year is quite incredible, especially to one used to watching cars on race track tarmacadam. That the team also has to establish itself it a vast range of different environments is also part of the challenge and marks out these rally men - that so many of them have done well in F1 is certainly no coincidence.

Fortunately Ford will be contesting the 2004 WRC season with Markko Martin and Francois Duval, and the series is all the better for them remaining. With further development to the car and with Markko having had the taste of WRC victory, lets hope for more successes from the blue oval.

 

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