Ford officially unveiled its all-new Focus RS 06 World Rally Car at the Bologna Motor Show in Italy last week.
The car will make its full competitive debut in January's Monte Carlo Rally, after a shakedown debut in last month's WRC Rall of Australia, the final round of the 2005 championship. The car showed stage-winning pace in Australia.
The Focus RS 06 is based on the high-performance Ford Focus ST road car, currently going on sale in Europe.
British-based company M-Sport which operates the Blue Oval's WRC programme, designed and built the RS 06 in less than 11 months. Christian Loriaux led the engineering team.
Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen and fellow Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will drive the works Focus in the 2006 WRC.
Ford Team RS director Jost Capito says that 12 months ago Ford carried out "a long and comprehensive review" into motorsport scene and its involvement in it. It showed there was a strong business case for Ford's continued involvement and proposals from the sport's governing body to reduce the costs of competing in the WRC encouraged us to continue long-term."
Clean sheet design
The transition from the outgoing rally car - introduced in 2003 - to the new model, which had to be designed with radical regulation changes for 2006 in mind, required a clean sheet of paper from the start.
In 2006 rallying is introducing technical changes designed to reduce cost.
The previous model was highly successful, but the team worked to a brief that demanded improvements in the engine, transmission and suspension.
A crucial priority was to achieve weight savings, an arduous task as the base model was heavier than the base for the previous Focus RS WRC and new regulations ban the widespread use of titanium.
After successful initial testing in Britain, the team moved to the second level of the car's test and development programme by taking two cars to last month's Rally Australia to evaluate it in a competitive environment for the first time.
It won two special stages and finished sixth.
"We're delighted with the way it performed there and we gained data which will prove valuable in our preparations for the 2006 season," says BP-Ford rally team director Malcolm Wilson.
But he adds: "it's unrealistic to expect us to win a world title next year; the car is too new for that. But I fervently believe that we will win rallies and lay a solid platform for a world championship bid in 2007 and 2008. In Marcus Gronholm and Mikko Hirvonen we have signed two drivers with the ability to maximise the potential of the Focus RS WRC 06.
"Behind the scenes, we have the strongest infrastructure in place at M-Sport, both in terms of personnel and facilities, since we took over the programme at the end of 1996 and that gives me the confidence to predict an extremely bright future."