M-Sport Ford World Rally Team and its quartet of young talents will embark on an all-new asphalt adventure next week (13-15 August) when Belgium and the Ypres Rally host the FIA World Rally Championship for the first time.
After four rounds on gravel, the multiple event- and title-winning British outfit is gearing up for a Tarmac event with a difference.
The rally is essentially two events rolled into one. The route on Friday and Saturday follows a tried and tested – and demanding – format, while Sunday’s itinerary takes crews 300 kilometres east to the Spa-Francorchamps race circuit for four stages in and around the Belgian Grand Prix venue.
Before then, however, are 16 stages covering a competitive distance of 255.26 kilometres located within a 30-kilometre radius of the historic market town of Ypres in northwest Belgium. Running over narrow and technical farmland roads, tight junctions and drainage ditches are commonplace, while changeable grip levels – and weather – add to the challenge facing the drivers and their teams. And with drivers taking ‘cuts’ through corners, mud and gravel can get dragged onto the road to create a slippery surface.
Although it’s a new event for the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team and its drivers, it’s not completely unchartered territory.
M-Sport used the rally to showcase its Ford Fiesta R5 to the world when it ran as a course car on the 2013 edition of the Ypres Rally, then a round of the FIA European Rally Championship. Adrien Fourmaux’s Belgian co-driver Renaud Jamoul and Gus Greensmith’s co-driver Chris Patterson have taken part on the event in the past, while Fourmaux’s family home is 40 kilometres from Ypres.
The Croatia Rally in late April was the last world championship round to take place on asphalt and marked Fourmaux’s debut in an EcoBoost-powered Ford Fiesta WRC with the Frenchman taking a fine fifth overall. He returns to the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team World Rally Car line-up to partner Greensmith as Teemu Suninen reverts to the squad’s WRC2 attack alongside Tom Kristensson with both relying on the EcoBoost-powered Ford Fiesta Rally2.
Team Principal, Richard Millener, said:
“Ypres is a very tricky and very specialised event and certainly not a typical asphalt rally with mud and other debris getting dragged onto the road by drivers taking ‘cuts’ through corners. When it rains – as it did during our testing this week – there’s even more mud and less grip to deal with. But all our drivers have experience in these conditions, while Tarmac has been a good surface for us in the past.
“Although he’s never competed in Ypres, Adrien was brought up 40 kilometres from the town and knows the lie of the land and what to expect in terms of the weather and how this effects the grip. Like Gus, he experienced changeable weather during his test, which enabled both drivers and our engineers to gather valuable data.
“Teemu has shown good form on asphalt events previously, while Tom spent a season competing in Germany on roads that aren’t too dissimilar to what he’ll find in Ypres. And we saw impressive speed from both drivers in Croatia.”
Having scored points on five of the seven WRC rounds run so far – including a career-best fourth on Safari Rally Kenya in June – 24-year-old Greensmith is aiming for a return to the top five. A former karter, the Briton was essentially ‘raised’ on asphalt and prepared for his Ypres debut by testing for one and a half days on roads 20 kilometres from the event base.
Gus Greensmith said:
“From testing I was surprised how slippery and unpredictable the farmland roads can be and the changeable grip will be a big thing during the rally. We had wet and dry conditions in the test, so I got a bit of everything. I’m feeling well prepared and the car was handling very well.
“The roads are much narrower than what we’d find in Germany, for example, and there’s much less room for error. If you have a small slide in Germany it’s nothing, but if you have a small slide in Ypres then you’re on the edge of the road so you need to drive straight and clean. You need a car that works well in the cuts because there are so many and you need a predictable car because you don’t want to be sliding when the edge of the road is so close.
“One of my main focuses on the test was to make sure I was nailing my braking points for the junctions and not giving away time. If you are not quite committing on the braking you are giving away a couple of tenths and that adds up, so you’ve got to be pushing the limits. But the grip is so changeable, even in the dry, and you’ve got to be careful because it can easily catch you out. Tarmac is a more natural surface than gravel for me because I grew up doing karting so my ambition is the top five.”
Having been brought up not far from the Belgian border in neighbouring France, Adrien Fourmaux is familiar with the roads around Ypres although he’s never had the opportunity to tackle the event until now. After contesting Rally Estonia in a Ford Fiesta Rally2, the 26-year-old gets another chance to show his skills behind the wheel of a Ford Fiesta WRC.
Adrien Fourmaux said:
“It’s a new rally for me but it’s like a home rally for me because it’s 40 kilometres from my house. The specificity of the road is therefore not new and I know about the really tight corners and the need to have big brakes and good traction for the long straights that come after. There are also some really fast corners and the roads are really narrow. There will be a lot of cutting and that means there will be a lot of mud on the road so road position will be very important.
“This rally is already a big challenge in the dry but if rain is coming to the party, it can be really difficult because it’s narrow and there is a lot of mud because we are in the middle of the fields. It could even be faster with gravel tyres!
“Competing in Ypres in a World Rally Car is even more extreme, but I am confident. We had a good test with a bit of rain, some drying roads and proper dry roads. It’s really nice to be so close to my house, my family, my partner’s family, my friends – and it’s the home rally of my co-driver Renaud. Of course, we want a good result and for sure we will do our best like always. Maybe I have a bit of an advantage because I know a bit about what to expect. But I’m not putting any pressure on myself, I just want to be in the fight.”
After finishing sixth on Rally Estonia in a Ford Fiesta WRC, Suninen returns to WRC2 and an EcoBoost-powered Ford Fiesta Rally2 for his Ypres Rally Belgium debut.
Teemu Suninen said:
“It’s going to be an interesting challenge. I’ve tried to watch and find videos from YouTube to get more understanding of the rally and this is where my focus will be in my preparation. I think the biggest challenge is the big cuts, how this will affect the car and how much dirt is coming on the road, especially if it’s raining. It’s a challenge to jump between the cars and I’m really motivated to make the Ford Fiesta Rally2 as strong as possible. At the beginning of my rally career, I was a lot stronger on gravel, but I have good results on Tarmac like in Corsica. But the challenge is to read the grip level, which is still challenging for me. The ultimate goal is to get back to my level where I have been before and be happy for the driving. I am not really setting the result targets.”
Kristensson, the reigning FIA Junior WRC champion, continues his WRC2 campaign in an EcoBoost-powered Ford Fiesta Rally2 on the back of a fine fifth place in class on Rally Estonia last month. The Swede plans to utilise experience gained from a season competing on Tarmac events in Germany in 2017 and 2018 for his first Ypres start.
Tom Kristensson said:
“We will test on Monday and this will be very important because I need all the kilometres I can have in the car and to get an understanding of the kind of roads we will drive on during the rally. I need to realise the important points with the car, the surface and the speed and focus on finding a good rhythm and confidence with the car. We had some really good stages in Croatia and a good feeling. To be honest I was more confident on Tarmac than I expected. I am expecting the roads will be quite similar to what we had when I was driving in Germany, the cuts, the weather changes and reading the different Tarmac. To be honest I have not looked at the WRC2 entry because there’s nothing I can do about it. I just need to focus on my own performance and be the best I can physically and mentally.”