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An exciting opening half of the FIA World Rally Championship comes to a close next weekend when BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team takes its series lead to the Rally of Turkey (12 - 15 June). This eighth round of the 15-event campaign returns to the calendar after a year's absence and is the last of a quickfire session of three hot weather, rough road rallies spanning five weekends in the Mediterranean.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi heads into the rally in a strong position in both the manufacturers' and drivers' championships. It holds a two-point advantage in the manufacturers' standings with the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car while Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are second in the drivers' table, just one point from the lead. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila hold fourth.
After one of the most demanding rallies in the WRC for several years in Greece earlier this month, conditions in Turkey should be less severe - but only just. The harsh environment of the Anatolian mountain speed tests, high above Turkey's southern coast holiday resorts, traditionally takes a high toll on competitors. Cooler thanks to its altitude and less rough than the savage conditions encountered in Greece, this nevertheless remains one of the most demanding rounds in the series.
The twisty and steep tracks have a clay base which breaks up to expose loose rocks, especially during the second pass. Conditions are expected to be dry and hot, but previous years have shown that rain quickly turns the clay roads into a muddy mess, cutting up quickly and becoming rutted. Temperatures in the rally base at Kemer will hover around 30ÂșC but as the stages climb to 1800m, lower figures should make conditions easier for hard-working engines, transmissions and drivers.
Hirvonen has three previous starts to his credit in Turkey with a best-placed finish of second in 2006. "This rally is very similar to Greece," said the 27-year-old Finn. "The surface is hard and the roads are reasonably wide. Some stages can be quite abrasive on the tyres but the problem comes if it starts to rain. Two years ago it rained heavily before the event and the roads were a mudbath.
"I really hope that it stays dry because that means that Sébastien Loeb, my rival at the top of the drivers' table, will be first in the start order in the worst of the conditions. I've struggled in that position on the last two rallies during the first day so it will be interesting to see how he copes. I prefer this situation of being a point behind him in the championship and having a better start position, than being a point ahead and having to start ahead of him," added Hirvonen.
Latvala has competed in Turkey just once, in 2004, but believes that his lack of experience of the roads might assist his efforts. "Maybe I'm not able to attack as much as in Italy and Greece because my experience isn't high but possibly that will help. If I'm not attacking as hard, it might help me have a clean run through the stages. A podium is my target and I won't be disappointed if I'm not able to fight for victory," said the 23-year-old Finn.
"The stages are not hard and stone-based, they have a softer composition which allows loose rocks to be pulled out onto the surface so it will be another tough event for cars. They roads are fairly slow and technical, but quite wide. I would prefer a dry rally rather than a wet one as driving in the wet in Turkey is very difficult. I'm really happy with the speed I've shown in Italy and Greece. In Greece I learned that I need to find a way to drive fast when road conditions are good, but when it is rougher I need to back off but remain fully competitive," added Latvala.
* As part of the sport's new regulations, BP Ford Abu Dhabi will have just one tyre pattern from Pirelli. The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in hard compound only. Because anti-deflation mousse is also outlawed this year, the Scorpion includes reinforced sidewalls to offer increased protection against punctures. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spares.
* Six other Focus RS cars will start the rally. Gigi Galli / Giovanni Bernacchini and Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud are nominated for points by the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team while Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin will drive a third car. Munchi's Ford World Rally Team has nominated Federico Villagra / Jorge Pérez Companc and Barry Clark / Paul Nagle to score. Another privately-entered Focus RS will be driven by Andreas Mikkelsen / Ola Floene. Fourteen Fiesta ST cars will also start what is the second round of the Fiesta SportingTrophy International, eight of which are competing in the Castrol Fiesta SportingTrophy Türkiye.
* Hirvonen is due to complete a two-day asphalt development test in Scotland today (Friday).
* Ford ambassador Marcus Grönholm will drive a Focus RS WRC at the two-day Chatsworth Rally Show in Britain this weekend. The demonstration event will be held at a former RAC Rally venue.
The route is virtually identical to the rally's last WRC appearance in 2006, with just minor modifications to a few stages. The holiday resort of Kemer is again the base and home to the single service park. All three legs are located in the complex maze of gravel roads high in the Anatolian mountains to the west. The action begins with a super special stage on Thursday evening at the university in Antalya, 40km north of Kemer, which is repeated at the end of Saturday's second leg. The opening day is the longest with more than 154km of competition, while Sunday's final leg includes two passes over the 31.20km Olympos test, the longest of the event. Drivers tackle 19 tests covering 360.12km in a route of 1263.74km.
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