Ford's three amigos bid to repeat Argentine win. As the FIA World Rally Championship moves outside Europe for the first time this season, Ford Rallye Sport is confident of transferring its mastery of the rocky roads during the last round in...
Ford's three amigos bid to repeat Argentine win.
As the FIA World Rally Championship moves outside Europe for the first time this season, Ford Rallye Sport is confident of transferring its mastery of the rocky roads during the last round in Cyprus to South America. Ford's Focus RS World Rally Car dominated the Cyprus Rally to lead for 15 of the 20 speed tests and a similar performance on the Rally Argentina (16 - 19 May), round six of the 14-event series, could see the team repeat last season's victory.
Colin McRae and Nicky Grist led from start to finish last year with team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya third. Both are confident of podium finishes again this season to strengthen Ford's second position in the manufacturers' championship, while third pairing Markko Märtin and Michael Park, fresh from leading a world rally in Cyprus for the first time, are hoping for a successful Argentine debut.
The gravel roads around the rally base of Villa Carlos Paz are generally smoother and faster than those of Cyprus, the opening gravel event of the season. However, the soft, sandy surface breaks up quickly and drivers must be careful of stray rocks lying on the track waiting to trap the unwary.
Spaniards Sainz and Moya attract a huge following among the Spanish-speaking Argentines, who heaped admiration on the 40-year-old Madrid-based driver last year when he claimed a podium place despite a back injury which rendered him virtually unable to move outside the car.
"I hope I'll be in a better physical condition this year," said Sainz, winner in Argentina in 1991 and five times a runner-up. "The Focus was fast in Cyprus and should be just as competitive in Argentina so I feel quite confident about our chances. The roads can become a little rough and rutted, although not to the extent we had in Cyprus, but the Focus works well in those conditions.
"The rally has a good mixture of driving conditions and doesn't really fall into any single category. It is slow in places, fast in others and wide in parts but quite narrow elsewhere. Some roads are soft and sandy while those on the final day are rocky and rough so it's a good test of all-round conditions for drivers and cars," he added.
McRae's Cyprus victory hopes ended with two accidents on the final day but the 33-year-old Scot is confident of a good performance in Argentina, despite a low road position for the first day. "The sandy surface breaks up quite quickly and in theory it should be an advantage to run high up the order. We'll start eighth this year but we were in a similar situation last season and were very quick on the first day so hopefully it won't be a problem," he said.
"The next three rallies are all on gravel and crucial to our championship hopes. The Focus was just as competitive on gravel in Cyprus as it was on that surface last year and Argentina should suit us more because the stages are quicker and I think that gives us an advantage," he said.
Märtin will compete in Argentina for the first time, although he practised the route last year. "We made pace notes but weren't entered for the rally," said Märtin. "It's hard to tell without driving the roads at competitive speeds, but it doesn't appear to be a particularly difficult rally. Maybe the hardest part will be ensuring we have the right car set-up because the stages vary so much that it's necessary to make slight alterations for the best performance.
"There are many water crossings and it interests me to see the best way to approach those. Luck wasn't on our side in Cyprus but it also showed our grasp of the faster roads wasn't quite as good as we thought so that's a point we must correct," he added.
The final leg rises to 2215 metres, the highest point in the championship outside Kenya, and the altitude presents a special challenge for World Rally Car engines. When the cars climb to altitude, barometric pressure falls, reducing engine power output - the equivalent of humans being out of breath.
With less air available to the engine, it burns less fuel which produces less power. The highest stage in Argentina sees a barometric pressure of about 700 mbar compared to 1000 mbar at sea level. This means there is about 30 percent less air available to the engine and 30 percent less power than at sea level - a drop of nearly 100bhp.
Tim Proctor, principal engineer at engine builder Cosworth Racing, said it was impossible to conquer power loss completely but it could be reduced. "The electronic controller of the engine is 'mapped' to use every bit of air to make the most power and this ensures that while the laws of nature can't be overcome, drivers should have the best power available at all times," he said.
In The Spotlight
Latin Americans display great passion about most things in life - nothing more so than sport. Soccer is their first great love but motorsport follows just behind and over one million people watched Rally Argentina live last year - more than 40,000 of whom attended the superspecial stage close to Villa Carlos Paz. As Spanish speakers, Carlos Sainz is their hero and the fans' adulation for him matches that in his home country.
Spectating Argentine-style is very different. Fans squeeze into cars to drive into the stages early, often lighting fires to keep warm or to cook huge pieces of meat. By the time the rally arrives the party, or fiesta as it is known there, is in full-swing and the atmosphere crackles as competitors race by to cheering, singing, flag waving and horn-blowing.
The route has been heavily revised. The southern leg around Santa Rosa de Calamuchita has been scrapped to produce a more compact event featuring an identical format for the opening two legs. After a ceremonial start in Villa Carlos Paz on Thursday evening, the first two days are based around La Cumbre and cross the Punilla Valley and the Sierra Chicas mountain range. They include four new stages and both legs include action at the Pro-Racing superspecial stage, where cars race side by side around a purpose-built track. The final leg is the shortest but also the toughest. Based in the arid Traslasierra region, the roads are rough and rocky and it includes the Giulio Cesare and El Condor tests, two of the most famous in the sport. The finish will be in Cordoba's soccer stadium, where thousands of fans gather to greet the winners. Drivers face 381.45km of stages in a route of 1456km.