Ford's 2004 Focus RS World Rally Car will make its asphalt debut on the unique roads of the Rallye Deutschland [19 - 22 August] this week.

The FIA World Rally Championship is heading into the tenth of 16 rounds. But after six consecutive gravel events since the car's first appearance in New Zealand in April, the roads of western Germany will offer the first opportunity for the BP-Ford World Rally Team to compete on a sealed surface with the car.

The challenge facing Markko Martin and Michael Park and team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot could not be more difficult. Rallye Deutschland is the first of three asphalt events in the final seven rounds which will do much to shape the eventual outcome of the championship and arguably it is the toughest. It is based in Trier, Germany's oldest city, and located just across the border from Luxembourg and France. The speed tests are located in three different areas and the characteristics of each are totally different.

The bumpy narrow stages among the Mosel vineyards comprise fast straights linked by tight hairpin bends and square junctions. Many corners are hidden by tall vines which provide 'tunnel' visibility while dirt dragged onto the driving line makes corners slippery. The smoother roads of the Saaland region are more flowing, generally faster but just as narrow.

And then there is Baumholder. The military land used for tank training by US soldiers is a potential car breaker, prompting BP-Ford technical director Christian Loriaux to nickname it 'the Safari of asphalt rallies', a reference to the brutally rough Safari Rally in Kenya. Fast, wide asphalt roads contrast with bumpy, abrasive concrete tracks which will require strong durability from the Michelin tyres fitted to the Focus RS cars. Baumholder's roads are often lined by massive kerb stones, known as 'Hinkelsteine', which sit on the edge of the track, ready to punish a careless mistake. They are also dirty, a mixture of gravel and sand making conditions slippery in the dry and treacherous in the wet.

Ideally, each type of stage requires a different car set-up but with each leg containing a mix of tests, drivers must often select a compromise specification.

Martin, lying third in the championship, finished sixth in 2002 and fifth last year and has as much experience of the tricky roads as anyone. "The rally is very different to the other asphalt events in the championship," said the 28-year-old Estonian. "There are many different road surfaces and it's not unusual to find several surface changes on the same stage. When it rains it's difficult to spot which surface has good grip and which doesn't.

"Baumholder is tricky because the roads are fast, the kerb stones are huge and if it is warm and dry then tyre wear becomes crucial. The vineyard roads demand total concentration because it's easy to miss a braking point and overshoot a junction. Sand on the road is probably the biggest worry. It makes corners incredibly slippery and with gravel crews banned, it will be especially difficult on the second pass through stages to spot where the danger places are."

Martin, who is still recovering from his Rally Argentina accident in July, has been resting since the Rally Finland. "I still feel quite tired but I don't expect that to be a problem by the time the rally starts in Germany," he added.

Rallye Deutschland is effectively the 'home' rally for Belgian duo Duval and Prevot and a large number of his fellow countrymen are expected to make the short journey to cheer him on.

"It's a difficult rally on which to judge the pace," said 23-year-old Duval. "The roads are slippery everywhere and the weather can change all the time which makes conditions even harder.

"The stages on Baumholder are probably the most difficult because there are many small stones on the road and many big stones by the side that can destroy the car immediately. And in the vineyards the asphalt is slippery, with mud patches on the road in virtually every corner. It will be important to drive carefully because it's easy to make a mistake.

"We have a good road position for this rally. On the first day we will start sixth and that's about right. The first three or four cars will struggle if the vineyards roads are really slippery but for us the conditions should be better. These stages are similar to the roads at home in Belgium on which I started my career. I'm used to them and I enjoy them," added Duval.