Qatar M-Sport’s quartet will be looking for a strong result next week as they head to Rally Mexico and the first gravel event of the 2013 FIA World Rally Championship (WRC).
The contrast to the opening rounds of the season could not be more different, and with a new Rally Mexico victor guaranteed, Mads Østberg, Evgeny Novikov, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Thierry Neuville will each be hoping that it’s their name which will become immortalised in the event’s history books.
Far removed from the sub-zero climates of late, Rally Mexico will see temperatures rise as high as 30˚C with drivers and co-drivers enduring even higher temperatures in the confines of the cockpit. Such heat can place additional stress on the Ford Fiesta RS WRC’s engine and transmission, but the real challenge is the altitude. As 394.88 km of competitive stages climb over 2500m through the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato mountains, the starved oxygen can see performance levels fall by as much as 20 per cent.
To best cope with these demands, the team has completed a thorough pre-event test in the south of Spain. Modifying the engine to replicate power levels expected at altitude, all four crews have assessed the Fiesta’s characteristics and braking points in such conditions and are now fully prepared for the challenges ahead.
Having secured a fifth and fourth place finish on their two previous visits to the Mexican event, Østberg and co-driver Jonas Andersson will be looking to go one better next week as they fight for their second successive podium of the year. Having completed 194 km during their pre-event test earlier this week, the Scandinavian duo is well prepared and relishing the fight ahead.
Keen to promote the fact that chocolate originated in the country over 3000 years ago, organisers have included a new special stage this year – the sweetly named ‘El Chocolate.’ Østberg’s week has also had a culinary flavour as he appeared on the Norwegian TV show ‘Fire Stjerners Middag' in which four celebrities take it in turn to host a dinner party for charity. The 25-year-old not only impressed his guests with his skills in the kitchen, but also took them for a spin in his rally car.
Making the move to gravel, Østberg’s fellow Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team driver, Novikov, will be looking to reap the rewards his speed has the potential to deliver. Indeed his progression as a world class driver was celebrated in his native Russia last week as he was named the country’s ‘driver of 2012’ beating the likes of F1 star Vitaly Petrov and two-time Rallycross Champion, Timur Timerzyanov, to the coveted crown.
Novikov will also have the advantage of having the field’s only previous Rally Mexico winner by his side next week – co-driver Ilka Minor. Having secured victory alongside Manfred Stohl in 2009 – when it was not a round of the WRC – Minor will be there to help guide her young charge. Next week’s event will also mark a significant milestone for the Austrian as she celebrates her 100th WRC appearance.
Having had to forfeit the previous round due to illness, Nasser Al-Attiyah will make his 2013 WRC debut next week as he makes a welcome return to the M-Sport fold. Leading the way for the Qatar World Rally Team, this will be the Qatari’s seventh venture to the Mexican stages – his extensive knowledge an advantage he’ll be able to share with his young team mates.
Partnered by Italian co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini, Al-Attiyah claimed his best ever result from the event last year when he secured sixth place overall – a success he will be hoping to replicate on his long-awaited debut with the Fiesta RS WRC.
Completing the Qatar World Rally Team line-up, Thierry Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul will be looking to make an impact next week; and with their least preferred events done and dusted, the Belgian duo will be out to impress. Despite this being only his second venture to Rally Mexico, Neuville displayed some impressive speed on his 2012 debut – running as high as third before a mistake relegated him to 13th place overall.
Between events Neuville went old school as he took to the wheel of a Ford Escort MkII for the Legend Boucles de Spa in his native Belgium. Having led the field for much of the event, an unfortunate mechanical problem meant that the 24-year-old was forced to make an untimely retirement.
Mads Østberg said:
“With [Sébastien] Loeb not competing in Mexico we’re in a good position in the championship – we just need to ensure that we stay in touch with [Sébastien] Ogier. He’s been very strong on the first two rounds and I think we can expect the same from him next week. But I’m ready for the fight and looking forward to the rally. With this being the first gravel round of the season the field will be a lot closer and we should have some really good battles.
“This is an event where road position counts for a lot, so we’ll be pushing from the beginning to make sure we have a good Qualifying. You need to adapt to the conditions straight away. The altitude means that the car handles and reacts differently to the way it would on other gravel events, so you need to be on it from the very beginning.
“I’m really looking forward to what I’m sure will be an exciting battle next week. The podium is my goal and that’s what we’ll be fighting for.”
Evgeny Novikov said:
“I’m feeling really good ahead of this rally. We had a good test – once we moved away from the snow – and learnt a lot about how to best set-up the car for the conditions. It’s quite a tricky event with a lot of things you need to consider. Some of the stages are very long and narrow which means that you need to keep your concentration even more than usual. The altitude too means that the car has much less power which can affect the usual braking points for example.
“As always we will fight for a good result and I think this could be a really good event for us. I also want to congratulate Ilka on her 100th WRC event. She knows what it takes to win here and having her by my side can only help.”
Nasser Al-Attiyah said:
“I’m feeling much better now and really looking forward to Rally Mexico. We had a great test and really gelled with the car and the team so we’re looking good for the rally.
“Experience is always very important so having competed here six times already I’ll be able to share some of that with Mads [Østberg], Evgeny [Novikov] and Thierry [Neuville]. But to be honest, I don’t think they’ll need so much advice! They’re all very good drivers with a big future ahead of them and each of them has already proven that they have the pace to do extremely well.
“The [Rally] Mexico stages are very good and actually amongst some of my favourite in the championship. Last year we finished strongly, and this year I hope to do even better and that at least one of our cars makes it on to the podium.”
Thierry Neuville said:
“Like in Sweden, we need to take a clever approach for this rally. Last year we proved that we have the speed, but this year it’s all about consistency and making it to the end with no mistakes.
“Of all the events this year, this rally is not the most difficult but it is certainly one of the most beautiful. The biggest challenge will be the long stage on the final day [Guanajuatito]. It’s an amazing stage, but you need to work extremely hard to keep the concentration.
“Road position is also always very significant so a good result in Qualifying is important. That’s the first goal, then a good first day with no mistakes. Although we are still finding confidence with the car – and this will be our first gravel event with the Fiesta – I am really looking forward to next week. If we find ourselves in a position to fight for a good result then that is certainly what we’ll do!”