WRC Academy: Greek Lessons

The FIA WRC Academy crews will embark on one of the biggest challenges in their careers this week as they tackle the infamous Acropolis Rally. Famed as one of the toughest events on the World Rally Championship (WRC) calendar, this year’s competitors will have to utilise all of their training as they look to conquer the ultimate test of both man and machine.

Supported by Ford Racing in Europe and with control tyres from Pirelli, this will be the WRC Academy’s first venture to the Greek event, which will provide the setting for the youngsters’ most challenging test to date. The identical Ford Fiesta R2s that make up the WRC Academy field have been strengthened to cope with restricted cooling in the slow corners of the twisting mountain tracks and withstand severe punishment from the rocks and underlying bedrock that litter the stages.

As one of the longest-standing rallies in the WRC, the 59th Acropolis Rally may prove less torturous than the five-day events of the past, but with temperatures reaching highs of over 30C and the earlier scheduling rendering the roads more abrasive than last year, the WRC Academy crews will have to adapt a blend of strength, reliability, speed and intelligence as they look to secure a strong result.

Crews will contest the 25km Super Special on Thursday evening before tackling the opening loops on Friday and Saturday. Despite contesting no repeat stages, this year’s WRC Academy contenders will have the opportunity to drive some of the most classic stages in Greece with runs over ‘Bauxites’ and ‘Drossohori’ as well as new challenges on the final day of competition through the beautiful Peloponnese peninsula.

Leading the WRC Academy following his victory at the Vodafone Rally de Portugal last month, Alastair Fisher (23) will be looking to maintain his lead. The Northern Irishman has been working with Sport Northern Ireland to ensure that he is in the best physical shape for the demands ahead – making best use of the programme’s heat chamber to test his fitness. As well as securing third place in the Fiesta SportTrophy UK series on the Pirelli International Rally earlier this month, Fisher has completed two extensive tests to ensure maximum seat-time before he rejoins regular co-driver Daniel Barritt for their debut on the Greek stages.

The Acropolis Rally marks a real milestone for the brother and sister pairing of Brendan Reeves (23) and Rhianon Smyth. Competing together since 2002, the second round of the WRC Academy will mark the duo’s 50th event together – 14 of which have been outside of their native Australia. Since securing second place in Portugal, Reeves and Smyth contested the Targa Tasmania Rally – a five-day endurance event on home soil in which they were running third in their modified Mazda RX8 SP before a mechanical problem forced them to retire. Reeves is currently training in Austria with the FIA Institute Young Driver Excellence Academy and will be looking to put all of his training and experience to good use as he makes his Greek debut this week.

Following a fantastic debut in the Ford Fiesta R2 last month, WRC Academy rookie Pontus Tidemand (21) returns to the one-make series eager to build upon his third place in the standings. The Swede has had a host of seat-time since the previous event. After taking class victory at Rally Sørland in Norway, Tidemand drove the zero-car on a local Swedish event, tested a Fabia S2000 and also completed a two-day test with fellow Swede Ingemar Svensson’s Ford Fiesta RS WRC. Next up, the 21-year-old will contest the third round of the Swedish Rally Championship alongside WRC Academy co-driver Stig Rune Skjærmoen before looking to emulate his recent Scandinavian successes on the international stage in Greece.

Also keen to replicate his good form from the previous round in Portugal, Timo Van Der Marel (22) will be looking for another strong result. The KNAF-supported driver contested the 2012 Rallye Sulingerland earlier this month alongside co-driving girlfriend and former WRC Academy contender, Rebecca Smart. The pairing finished 14th overall and second in the Nissan Cup to lead the 350Z Challenge in their Nissan 350Z. Van Der Marel also attended the fourth workshop of the FIA Institute Young Driver Excellence Academy where he completed a number of practical seminars on physical fitness and driving style – sessions that will prove valuable as he rejoins Erwin Berkhof for the Acropolis Rally this week.

After claiming three stage wins in Portugal, the Scandinavian pairing of Fredrik Åhlin (21) and Morten Erik Abrahamsen will also return to competition in Greece. Since the season opener, Åhlin has been working for Audi as a driving instructor in Denmark. The 21-year old teaches an advanced driving course for the manufacturer and put his own skills to the test with some hot-laps in an Audi R8.

Also returning to the WRC Academy in Greece, Jose Suárez (21) will be reunited with regular co-driver, Candido Carrera. Since Portugal, the asphalt specialist contested Rally Auxerrois – a gravel round in the French Championship – to perfect his ever-improving driving style on loose-surface events. Despite being forced to retire from the rally with mechanical problems, the extra seat-time and recce will see the Spaniard well placed as he looks for a strong result on the gravel stages of the classic Greek event where he welcomes new sponsor, ACSM Marine Services.

Currently leading the British Rally Championship (BRC) in his Ford Fiesta R2, Elfyn Evans (23) will be looking to replicate his home success on the international stage. The Welshman has secured victory on every round of the Fiesta SportTrophy UK series this year, as well as a string of top five finishes in the BRC to lead the championship ahead of a host of more powerful R3 specification cars. Evans’ consistency and mechanical sympathy, combined with his obvious pace, is set to prove an advantage as he makes his debut on the Acropolis Rally. In a change from the previous event in Portugal, Evans will be joined by the 2007 and 2008 BRC Champion, Phil Pugh. Having contested the J-WRC alongside Guy Wilks from 2004 – 2006, Pugh brings a wealth of experience from international events in both the WRC and Intercontinental Rally Championship.

After debuting in the WRC Academy on his home event in Portugal, João Silva (24) will return to the one-make series with a new co-driver – Hugo Magalhães. It has been a busy month for the Portuguese pairing as they work on building their relationship ahead of the second round of the season. Having run together as the zero-car on the third round of the Portuguese Championship, the pairing have also been training hard to make sure they are in top shape for the demanding event. This week also saw the duo conclude a test with the Ford Fiesta R2. Having completed 70km, the twosome learnt a lot about the car and are confident of finding a good set-up in Greece.

Also returning to the WRC Academy, John MacCrone (23) will be looking to put the disappointment of Portugal behind him where he was forced to Rally 2 following damage to his Ford Fiesta R2 on the opening day of competition. The Scotsman contested the second round of the Scottish Tarmac Rally Championship at Ingliston earlier this month. Despite being forced to retire from the event with a mechanical issue, MacCrone secured three fastest stage times in his Ford Fiesta R2 to out-perform a number of more powerful specification cars. Making their debut at the Acropolis Rally, MacCrone and fellow Scot Stuart Loudon will also welcome a new sponsor to their squad – Glengorm Castle on the Isle of Mull.

Also keen to put the disappointment of Portugal behind him, Chris Duplessis (24) makes a welcome come-back to the one-make series after being forced to retire from the previous round with accident damage to the rear of his Ford Fiesta R2 on the final stage. Returning to the States, the charismatic American has spent two weeks working and training at the DirtFish Rally School in Washington. Working on perfecting his pacenotes with the skills learnt from Ford World Rally Team’s Chris Patterson last month, Duplessis and regular co-driver Karl Atkinson will put their training into practice as they debut on the Acropolis Rally – an event where detailed pacenotes can make all the difference.

Finally, making his official debut in the WRC Academy, South African Ashley Haigh-Smith (19) brings the number of represented continents to four. As the youngest driver in the series, the 19-year-old is currently competing in the South African Rally Championship in a Ford Fiesta R2 and had been comfortably leading his class on the previous round at the Sasol Rally until collecting three punctures and ultimately being forced to retire from the event. Haigh-Smith has also been the driving force behind an exciting project in his native South Africa which offers an extended driving experience with the youngster and donates 20 per cent of the proceeds to charity. Accompanied by accomplished co-driver Craig Parry – who is currently leading the BRC co-driver standings – Haigh-Smith will be looking for a good result on his Greek debut.

Making his debut as a registered WRC Academy driver, Ashley Haigh-Smith said: “The WRC Academy is the place to be if you want to learn and eventually progress into top-level rallying. The competition [in the feeder series] is just as tough as it is amongst the P1 drivers and, with an equal playing field for everyone, it is just the driver and the navigator who make the difference which gives us the perfect opportunity to show what we can do behind the wheel. I’m feeling good ahead of Greece. For sure it will be a tough opening event for us, but I am looking forward to the challenge and we have been working hard to ensure a strong result. In South Africa we don’t conduct a recce as you would in the WRC, so I have spent the past two days working on my recce and pacenote skills up in the mountains. The roads in South Africa are pretty rough, so hopefully that will give us a slight advantage. But we have nothing to prove on the first event. For us, it will be about trying to find some consistency and getting our pace up to that of those who have had the benefit of an extra event.”