Ford’s WRC rally team director, Malcolm Wilson, says the new Focus WRC 03 could power Markko Martin to the championship title this year, but the Estonian does not share his boss’ optimism.

Ford’s WRC rally team director, Malcolm Wilson, says the recently launched Focus WRC 03 could power Markko Martin to the championship title this year, but the Estonian does not share his boss’ optimism.

When Ford’s 2003 rally car was launched last week, CARtoday.com reported that the Christian Loriaux-designed Focus was the result of an extensive re-design and was instantly quicker than the 2002 car in a back-to-back test earlier this year. The car will début at next month’s Rally of New Zealand.

Wilson was quoted as saying this weekend that the Ford Focus 03 was unproven and that the New Zealand event would pose an enormous challenge for Ford Rallye Sport in terms of logistics. Furthermore, Martin and Francois Duval have little experience in New Zealand conditions.

However, “there was only one objective for Loriaux and his team: to build a car that could win on all events. I’m so confident in this car and what’s happened, I think we’ll be a very strong contender for next year’s championship,” Wilson said.

“I think if this car’s reliable, Markko could be a contender for this year’s title, especially with the points system,” he added.

The World Rally Championship, which falls under the auspices of the FIA, has adopted F1’s scoring system of 10, 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 points being allocated for the first to eighth-placed finishes in rallies. The smaller difference in the number of points scored for first, second and third positions could help Martin, who is fourth in the championship’s race on 13 points (Peugeot’s Richard Burns is in the lead on 18), to win the world championship even if the Focus WRC 03 isn’t instantly competitive in New Zealand.

Should Peugeot kingpins Burns and Marcus Gronholm and Citroën Xsara WRC drivers Sébastien Loeb, Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae be wary of Martin’s title challenge in 2003?

Martin doesn’t think so. The Estonian is thrilled with his new rally car, but carefully distanced himself from Wilson’s suggestion that he could become World Champion this year.

“I am very pleased to hear that my team boss has so much faith in me!” Martin said. “I don’t mind, but I think it will be a very big surprise if we fight for the championship this year. It has never been the plan. I am not thinking about it at all. I feel fantastic with the new car, but it is just on the paper. It is not reality. What counts is Sunday afternoon in New Zealand.”

The 27-year-old has yet to win a World Championship rally.