Ford Rallye Sport's 2003 Focus RS World Rally Car completed its first test in Spain last week and both drivers and management were delighted with its performance. The new car completed a comprehensive back-to-back test with the 2002 car on both asphalt and gravel, the first time it has run aside from a brief systems check close to the team's Dovenby Hall base in England during the holiday period.
The 2003 Focus RS is radically different, both mechanically and in appearance, although the team is not yet ready to reveal the improvements. It is the first car to be designed under the leadership of technical director Christian Loriaux who joined Ford Rallye Sport at the start of 2002. Although he developed last year's car continually throughout the season, the basic design was already completed before his arrival.
The new Focus RS is due for homologation by the FIA on April 1 and it is planned to be used in competition for the first time on the Rally of New Zealand on 11 - 13 April.
Markko Märtin and Michael Park carried out two days of asphalt driving close to Barcelona in north-east Spain last Monday and Tuesday, on roads similar to those where much of the competition takes place on the Rally Catalunya. François Duval and Jean-Marc Fortin then took over for two days of gravel testing in the same area before Märtin and Park completed the programme with another two days on loose surface roads on Saturday and Sunday.
Ford Rallye Sport team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with the outcome of the test. "The most encouraging aspect is that even though it is very early in the car's development programme, the 2003 car was faster in back-to-back tests than the 2002 car. The most noticeable difference came on high-speed sections and data from last season showed that's the area where we need to make the biggest improvement.
"We're very pleased with the results so far although obviously there's a lot more work still to do. The next step will be for the engineering team to complete a thorough debrief here at M-Sport when they return from Spain ahead of a weeklong static test in Germany following the Monte Carlo Rally. It's quite likely that the car's test programme will change because we have to be flexible and respond to alterations and modifications from the engineers. That's all part of developing a new car," added Wilson.
Märtin was also happy with the outcome. "I was delighted with the way the week went," said the 27-year-old Estonian. "My first impressions were very positive, although we obviously have a lot more work to do. The M-Sport team have done a fantastic job in producing this Focus, a car which I really believe has great potential."
The test also marked the first occasion on which the Focus RS WRC has run on Michelin tyres since Ford Rallye Sport renewed its partnership with the French company. Both the 2002 and 2003 rally cars were tested on Michelin rubber, the first time Märtin has used it for several years.
"I felt quite comfortable with the Michelin rubber, which I haven't used since I was an amateur driver a few years ago. It will take some time to become fully accustomed to the change but it was good to have the opportunity to test both cars on Michelin tyres," said Märtin.
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