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Ford's WRC stars kick start Blue Oval's motorsport season
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND, 12 January 2006 -- Ford's new signings, double world rally champions Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, today made their first public appearance alongside the all-new Focus RS World Rally Car 06.
The Finnish quartet broke off from their final test session in southern France ahead of next week's first round of the FIA World Rally Championship, to appear at the opening day of the Autosport International show in Birmingham -- the traditional curtain raiser to the motorsport season.
The asphalt test session near Gap provides the third testing opportunity for the BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers to sample the exciting new Focus RS WRC upon which Ford is placing its world championship hopes for the next three seasons. But the foursome jetted into Birmingham to meet the world's media and share the limelight with the Focus RS WRC, which will remain on display to the public throughout the four-day show.
The next time the drivers will be seen with the car in its distinctive livery will be in just seven days when the official start of the Rallye Monte Carlo signifies the beginning of the gruelling 16-round season.
"I've driven the Focus RS WRC on snow in Sweden and twice on asphalt in France and I'm hugely impressed," said 37-year-old Gronholm. "I quickly developed a good feeling with the car and have settled into a good working relationship with the team. I'm not making any predictions about Monte Carlo. The important thing on the first round is for me to gain experience of the car in competitive surroundings. But my initial feeling is that the Focus RS WRC can win rallies in 2006."
Hirvonen was equally delighted. "I've tackled more WRC events in a Focus RS than any other car so I know just what a good rally car it is. But this new-generation Focus RS WRC has huge potential and I'm so excited at the thought of the season ahead. I can't wait to tackle my first competitive kilometres in the car in Monte Carlo," said 25-year-old Hirvonen, who flew to France for tomorrow's final day of testing ahead of the new season.
Also new for 2006 is a partnership with BFGoodrich tyres. The Focus RS WRC will run on the American company's rubber for the next three seasons, the first time that BFGoodrich has been involved in the WRC with an official manufacturer.
Ford's world rally programme is Ford of Europe's primary motorsport activity. In November 2004 the Blue Oval announced a four-year commitment to the FIA World Rally Championship. A key aspect of that agreement was the introduction of an all-new Focus RS WRC, based on the Focus ST road car, which was officially unveiled at the Bologna Motor Show on 1 December 2005.
"Ford carried out a long and comprehensive review into the motorsport scene," said Jost Capito, director of Ford TeamRS, the performance road car and motorsport arm within Ford of Europe. "It showed there is a strong business case for Ford's continued involvement in WRC and what we see today is Ford's future in the WRC.
"We have a strong and experienced team operating from world class facilities at M-Sport's Dovenby Hall premises under the leadership of Malcolm Wilson. We have a fantastic driver line-up, blending one of rallying's great drivers with one of the sport's up-and-coming stars. And we have the car that we believe will carry us forward to new levels of competitiveness.
"It is too optimistic to expect us to win a world title this year. The car is too new for that. But we fervently believe that we will win rallies and lay a solid platform for a world championship bid in 2007 and 2008," added Capito.
In addition to official world rally programme, Ford will again support a wide range of customer activities in varying motorsport disciplines. The Stobart-VK-M-Sport Ford Rally Team will enter 2005 specification Focus RS WRC on all 16 rounds of the world championship. The privately-funded team will be led by 18-year-old Matthew Wilson, Britain's most promising and talented young rally driver.
The Ford Fiesta Super 1600 has been developed by M-Sport for the FIA Junior World Rally Championship while the Fiesta ST Group N rally car will be widely used in 2006. The Ford Fiesta Sporting Trophy International is a single-make series which will take in six rounds of the WRC while several countries are organising national championships with the same car. Both series will be administered by M-Sport.
On the race circuits, the Focus RS S2000 was developed in the FIA World Touring Car Championship during 2005 and is likely to be seen in the hands of customer teams in 2006. The 20-round UK Formula Ford Championship will be boosted by the introduction of the powerful new Duratec engine and the mouth-watering prize of a free entry in the 2007 British Formula 3 Championship for the title winner is a huge lure.
"The WRC is Ford's flagship activity," said Capito. "But we are keen to support customers throughout various motorsport categories. Our strategy has been to develop competition cars, make them competitive and then make them available for customers to drive so that they can enjoy their chosen sport to the full."
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