Feautre A former psychiatric hospital in England's picturesque countryside holds the key to Abu Dhabi's motorsport ambitions in 2009.
A former psychiatric hospital in England's picturesque countryside holds the key to Abu Dhabi's motorsport ambitions in 2009. Dovenby Hall, once a stately home until it was converted into a hospital treating up to 400 patients with mental illnesses, has been the home of M-Sport, the driving force behind the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally team, since 2000. More than 200 members of staff are employed on the 115-acre site, where the team's challenger for the World Rally Championship has been masterminded.
This week, Finnish drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala got to grips for the first time with the car they will drive in the season-opening Rally Ireland from this weekend. The newest addition to the ever-evolving Dovenby Hall is a £1 million (Dh5.34m) research and development facility, where technical director Christian Loriaux leads his team in developing the Ford Focus WRC. Loriaux, who engineered the car that the now deceased Richard Burns drove to the 2001 title in, and masterminded the Focus that won Ford the manufacturers' titles in 2006 and 2007, insists there will be little change from last year's car.
"The days of this car are numbered, with the spec cars coming in," he said, "so you don't want to spend masses of money on it. That said, you can't stand still as, if you stand still in rallying terms, you go backwards ... fast. "This year's car will look a lot like last year's but with some development tweaks. The biggest issue for us has been the weight. It's a heavier car so we've had to look at ways of reducing the weight wherever possible.
"Already we've had a more lightweight gearbox, but we'll introduce even greater tweaks in March with a newly homologated version of the car. There will be a slightly lighter flywheel, a lighter gearbox, some fine-tuning on the suspensions, dampers and differential, but not wholesale changes." Much of Loriaux's time, and that of his team, is instead spent on working on the spec car that is being introduced by the FIA, rallying's governing body, for 2010 and will become compulsory for the 2011 championship.
In short, it means each team will basically be running the same S2000 specification car. The change is being driven by cost-cutting ambitions and Loriaux understands the reasoning behind it. However, from a technical point of view, he said it would make life a little dull. "It makes my life more boring," he said. "There's obviously less interest for us technically. Already the rally cars we deal with are more boring than even five years ago. The challenge is still big but it's just not so interesting for me.
"But it's good for the championship as a whole as the cars will be cheaper and that will hopefully allow younger drivers in to compete and, rather than have just four people going for the title, there will be at least ten." Two of those vying for the title will be Hirvonen and Latvala, who were second and fourth respectively in last season's championship. Latvala was initially reticent about the change to spec cars but now welcomes the move. He said: "For me, it's great as they're going with a turbo, which makes me very happy. For me, the regulations probably came a bit late for the championship. If they'd been in place before, maybe we would not have lost two major manufacturers for this season."
The two manufacturers in question are Subaru and Suzuki, who have both blamed the battered economy for withdrawing from the championship with immediate effect. Hirvonen described their joint withdrawal as "really bad news for the WRC" and said he worries about the future of the championship. But he added: "There's just two manufacturers left and that's not great but it doesn't change the fact that we're still trying to be the quickest in the world, to beat Sebastien Loeb and to win the world title."
To do that, Ford has its work cut out. Loeb, probably the greatest rally driver of all time - at least statistically speaking - is bidding for a sixth consecutive world title. Loriaux readily admits Hirvonen and Latvala are unlikely to catch the Belgian over the course of the entire championship. "Sure, we want our drivers to win but Sebastien is an amazing talent, a hard man to beat," said Loriaux, who has been working with Ford since 2001. "For us, the number-one goal is to win the manufacturers' title which we should have won last year."
Judging by their end-of-season pace and with the tweaks Loriaux and his team have put in place, the goal is realistic. But there are obstacles in the team's way, not least of all the decision by the FIA to allow teams just one safety crew to check any of the calendar's tarmac events before a rally rather than the usual two. And the decision has left both Hirvonen and Latvala fuming. "Having a safety crew checking the route for a specific drive before an event is vital," he said. "But now the FIA has decided just one crew can do it for their drivers. It's dangerous. The notes are very different for each driver. I see they want to save costs but at the risk to drivers and their co-drivers. It's crazy, so we head to Ireland [a tarmac event] with a bit of trepidation."
Ford put a counter proposal to the FIA to guarantee better driver safety but that was rejected, much to the bemusement of Hirvonen. He said: "We said, why not let a second co-driver in the car with the safety crew. That won't be any more expensive and that way you're not messing about with safety. They said 'no', which is crazy." Other obstacles in place for 2009 are less specific for the drivers and more crucial to Loriaux and his team. The Frenchman has welcomed moves to cut costs in the sport as the global economic slowdown hits the major motoring manufacturers. But he believes the situation could have been better handled.
"If I was in charge, I'd have introduced two-wheel-drive cars - rear-wheel drive - with six gears. I'd like the cars to have 450-horsepower. That would be more exciting to watch and would still be cheap, enabling great young drivers like Francois Duval and Kris Meeke to compete. These are guys without a suitcase of money who could compete if the WRC was like this. It'd be a really great show." Loriaux's biggest gripe is over the horsepower available to WRC drivers - currently no more than 300 hp.
"This is crazy," he said. "We're at the height of motorsport yet my grandmother can go to any garage forecourt and get a car with greater horsepower, while Mikko Hirvonen's only allowed 300-horsepower. "That's not right, and it's made things more boring. Actually, motorsport's got boring. Anyone could hop into an F1 or BTCC car these days. OK, it still takes courage to get into a world rally car and hit jumps between trees in Finland at 200 kilometres per hour. But it's starting to lose it's shine. We need to look to MotoGP where it's so much more exciting. Now that's real racing."
For 2009, Citroen and Ford are the sole manufacturers left in the championship, but Loriaux insisted it would be little change from the last two seasons when both were streets ahead of their other rivals. And Loriaux sees the reduction to two manufacturers merely as a continuation of the WRC's history. "There's always been two teams dominating," he said. "You had Audi and Lancia, then Audi and Peugeot, there was Toyota and Subaru, and the Subaru and Mitsubishi. It's no different. OK, we need manufacturers to come back and they hopefully will with the changes looming."
Ford have made clear their commitment to remaining in the championship thanks to the financial backing of Abu Dhabi, their title sponsor. Latvala readily admits he knew nothing about Abu Dhabi before the tie-in with the team. He has since visited the city and is confident Abu Dhabi will continue to support the team and the WRC as a whole. He said: "Abu Dhabi's been a very important part of the WRC. Without Abu Dhabi we wouldn't be able to continue as a team. They have enabled us to run a team at the very top level and that's an expensive business. And I think Abu Dhabi is getting something back. As well as a top team, more and more people are asking about the place so hopefully that's serving its purpose."
Hirvonen and Latvala will have started Rally Ireland as underdogs to Loeb, who has dominated on tarmac during his five world title wins. But the team's battles are bigger than just Loeb, according to Loriaux. "We're battling with the budget, battling to keep ahead of our rivals and battling to dominate in the future," said Loriaux. "But we love a battle." The 2009 season promises to be just that. firstname.lastname@example.org