Snow, studs & spectacle for M-Sport

Snow, studs & spectacle for M-SportFrom M-Sport [ 31/01/2014 ].
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As the FIA World Rally Championship's (WRC) only true winter event, Rally Sweden offers a unique challenge. Snow-covered stages and studded tyres provide one of the most spectacular events of the year and - having traditionally performed well at the Swedish fixture - M-Sport has its sights firmly set on further success.

Based in the rally-rich heart of Värmland, the region has benefited from significant snow-fall of late, which could well signal the return of some classic winter rallying.

Provided the snow cover remains good, Rally Sweden might surprise. Whereas other loose-surface events deliver unpredictable grip-levels, traction on snow is relatively high. With temperatures well below zero, Michelin's X-ICE NORTH 2 tyres bite through the snow to capture grip on the hard ice below - affecting a smooth ride at breath-taking speeds.

But should the stages be covered with soft snow and little ice, the studs tear up the road surface leaving little room for error - exposed gravel threatening to damage the steel-tips and resulting in a considerable loss of traction.

Of course it's not just tyres which are adapted to cope with the cold climate. The Ford Fiesta RS WRCs are fitted with extra protection to guard against the studded tyres and there are a few driver comforts to ensure the crews can perform to the best of their ability. The cars are fitted with heaters and the drivers and co-drivers benefit from such little luxuries as heated boots and thicker soled shoes.

One driver who knows what it takes to overcome the challenges thrown up by this specialist event is Mikko Hirvonen. He and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen have contested the rally on ten previous occasions - making the podium no fewer than five times and winning the event with Ford and M-Sport in both 2010 and 2011. Their 2011 victory came on the Fiesta RS WRC's maiden outing. In fact, the Fiesta claimed a clean-sweep of the podium that year - making it one of rallying's most successful WRC debuts.

As one of Scandinavia's most celebrated drivers, the art of winter rallying comes naturally to the Finn who first learnt to drive whilst sitting on his father's knee on a frozen lake. Needless to say, Hirvonen's season starts here and he will be looking towards a podium finish.

By contrast, next week will mark Elfyn Evans' first venture to Sweden's snow-covered stages. The Welshman has never contested a snow rally with studded tyres, but with the knowledge and guidance of his experienced team mate, he will be well prepared for the challenges ahead.

Partnered by co-driver Daniel Barritt, the pairing will be looking to gain as much knowledge and experience of the unfamiliar surface as possible. With the goal of making it through all 24 stages unscathed, next week provides another perfect opportunity for Evans to hone his skills and continue his development as one of the championship's most promising up-and-coming young talents.

Mikko Hirvonen said:

"We've just completed a really good test and I'm feeling good. We knew from past experience that the Fiesta [RS WRC] would be really strong in the high-speed sections, and it was great to see that I had that same good feeling straight away.

"Rally Sweden is extra fun when it's really cold and there is a lot of snow - there's nothing better than bouncing your car off the compacted snow banks at high speed. Although the region has had some good snow fall recently, there might not be much ice and that could be tricky. It means that there will be a lot of gravel coming through the snow which makes tyre management really important.

"I've won this rally twice before, but I wouldn't say that there was much of a secret to doing well here. It used to favour the Scandinavians, but I think last year proved that that is no longer the case and anyone can be quick here.

"The main thing to remember is to really commit to the stages. Especially in the high-speed sections, you need the confidence to go flat-out. It's one of those events where a driver needs to really attack, but in the narrow sections you also have to be very precise. There's a very narrow line that forms, and if you venture off that line you can easily find yourself in trouble.

"I really hope that we can get back to our best next week and be challenging for the top positions. Monte-Carlo was a really tricky event for us, so now I'm really looking forward to Sweden where I think we can be competitive. We're certainly determined to show what we can do."

Elfyn Evans said:

"This will be my first time driving a proper snow rally with full studded tyres, but I'm feeling good about the challenges ahead. We've had a really good test which has helped a lot with the confidence, but obviously the rally itself will be a completely different experience. Even the recce will be new to us - discovering how to best prepare the notes for these kinds of conditions.

"I think that the type of snow we encounter will be key. At the moment, it looks like it's going to be fairly mild in Värmland so that could make it quite tricky and we will need to ensure that we take care to look after the studded tyres. We just need to take everything as it comes, one stage at a time, and gain as much experience as possible.

"Of course Mikko [Hirvonen] and Jarmo [Lehtinen] are well versed when it comes to this event. They have a lot of experience on snow and have won the rally twice already so we'll be looking to harness their experience as much as we can. They've already been really helpful. After Monte and during this week's test we have exchanged a lot of questions. Their advice will be invaluable to us next week, and I'm sure they'll continue to share their knowledge throughout the event."


M-Sport developed machinery can boast 45 per cent of next week's Rally Sweden entry. Impressively, the Cumbrian outfit has also amassed 53 per cent of the WRC 2 category and 53 per cent of the FIA World Rally Championship's highest class with nine Ford Fiesta RS WRC's lining up for the start at Karlstad's famous Färjestad Trotting course.

Highlighting the effectiveness of Ford and M-Sport's 'Ladder of Opportunity', the past three FIA WRC Academy and Junior WRC champions will all take to M-Sport's top-specification Fiesta. Having excelled behind the wheel of the Ford Fiesta R2, the talented trio are now ready to progress their respective careers within the M-Sport fold.

As the only Swede to contest his home event in a world rally car, Pontus Tidemand powered to an impressive victory of over a minute and a half at last week's Mountain Rally in Norway. Providing the perfect confidence boost, the youngster - who hails from near-by Charlottenberg - will be ready to see the Swedish flags flying high in Värmland.

Of course Tidemand is not the only local hero to take to the wheel of a Fiesta next week as both Fredrik Åhlin and Per-Arne Sääv take to M-Sport's Ford Fiesta R5.

M-Sport Managing Director, Malcolm Wilson OBE, said:

"To see so many [Ford] Fiestas on the entry list is absolutely fantastic. Together with Ford, M-Sport has constructed an effective 'Ladder of Opportunity' and nowhere is that more apparent than at next week's Rally Sweden.

"We have some impressive young drivers behind the wheel of M-Sport cars, but most importantly, all three FIA WRC Academy and Junior WRC champions will be behind the wheel of a Ford Fiesta RS WRC - progressing their respective careers at rallying's highest level.

"It's also great to see a local hero behind the wheel of one of our Fiesta RS WRCs. As the only Swedish driver to take to a world rally car, I am sure that the Swedish flags will be out in support of Pontus [Tidemand]. He had a very impressive debut here last year, and considering the amount of effort and determination he has put into his preparation, I hope he will have a great rally, worthy of his considerable talent."