Ford's amigos ready to tango in Argentina After four European rallies in the opening three months of the FIA World Rally Championship season, the Ford Martini team makes its first long haul journey of the campaign next week with the drivers...
Ford's amigos ready to tango in Argentina
After four European rallies in the opening three months of the FIA World Rally Championship season, the Ford Martini team makes its first long haul journey of the campaign next week with the drivers still waiting to sample the pure gravel roads which comprise so much of this 14-round series.
The Latin influence will be to the fore for the third time in succession as the team heads to the country of the tango to tackle the Rally Argentina (3 - 6 May), looking to strengthen its second place in the championship standings. The rally is the only occasion in which the team's Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars are seen in action in the Americas and follows previous rounds in Portugal and Spain.
That guarantees fervent support for Ford Martini's Spanish duo Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya, who have scored points on each round to lie second in the drivers' table. Sainz, team-mates Colin McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist, and François Delecour and co-driver Daniel Grataloup will be eager to see gravel after torrential rain turned the loose surface tracks on the first all-gravel event in Portugal into a mudbath.
"Although Portugal was supposed to be a gravel rally conditions were so bad that nobody could draw any real conclusions from the results," said 39-year-old Sainz, winner in Argentina in 1991 and runner-up on five occasions. "Argentina is a fresh start for us and only now will we see which teams are strong on this surface. The next six rounds are on loose surface roads so the results here will be a good indication of how the championship may go over the next few months.
"The stages are a mixture of different gravel surfaces and the Focus has always performed well on gravel so we can be confident of a good result. But because it's such a long time since a genuine gravel rally I'm sure all the teams have made steps forward in developing their cars so we must wait and see," he added.
McRae and Grist hope the gravel will mark an upturn in fortune after a disappointing start to the season. "Our biggest difficulty will be road position on the opening day," said 32-year-old McRae. "Because we haven't scored any points, we'll start down the running order. The roads are soft and quickly become rutted, with rocks kicked up by earlier cars. It increases the chances of damage from loose rocks on the ideal driving line but it's something we must put up with.
"But the hardest part for us all will be the rally's final two stages. They're rocky and narrow, the roads running between dry stone walls and it's easy to be caught out. Every year at least one front-runner hits problems and if the time differences are close and drivers have to attack we can expect this year to be no different," he said.
Delecour and Grataloup bid to continue their amazing run of form which has brought points-scoring finishes on each of the last 10 rounds, the best run since the championship began in 1979. The French pairing competed in Argentina for the first time last year and Delecour quickly learned the tricky nature of the event.
"It's a difficult rally," he said. "The roads differ so much from one day to the next. The speeds are high on the stages to the south during the second leg but the tracks are so narrow and rocky on the final day that the speeds are as slow as Greece or Cyrus in places.
"I've developed a good feeling with the Focus in the four rallies so far. I've driven on snow, asphalt and gravel and I now know the car quite well. I'm hopeful of a good result here because I thought it was possible to score maximum points in Spain on the last round. That didn't happen but at least I scored one point which kept my total moving forward," he added.
Challenge of the Rally Argentina
Pre-event testing for long haul rallies, with the exception of Kenya's Safari Rally, is restricted to two or three days immediately before practice because of the huge distances and costs involved in transport. It is simply not cost-effective to schedule the usual week-long test eight to 10 weeks before the rally to perfect car set-up and tyre selection.
Consequently information from the previous year's rally is vital in identifying the right set-up, a choice that can be confirmed in the single day of testing undertaken by Sainz and McRae before practice. Similarly, the rule restricting teams to nominating just two basic tyre patterns before the rally means great care must be made in selection. Tyre partner Pirelli offers a broad range of compounds to cater for weather conditions that can see near-freezing conditions early in the morning rise to over 25°C by midday.
The resort of Villa Carlos Paz effectively provides the rally base and from here the route fans out clockwise over three legs. After two super special stages on Thursday evening at the Pro Racing complex near Carlos Paz, the opening leg heads north the next day for stages across the vast open plains around La Cumbre. Faster and more flowing tests to the south around Santa Rosa de Calamuchita comprise the second leg before the final day heads west to rocky roads in the arid Traslasierra mountain range near Mina Clavero. The final two tests, Giulio Cesare and El Condor, are two of the most famous in the sport and two of the toughest. Boulder-strewn roads climb to 2215 metres, the high point of the championship outside of Kenya's Safari Rally. Drivers face 389.58km of stages in a route of 1345.07km before the finish at Cordoba soccer stadium, host to the 1978 World Cup and one of the year's picture postcard locations.
When the rally arrives in the tiny town of Mina Clavero on the final day, drivers and team personnel will pay tribute to Ford's reigning Argentine rally champion, Jorge Recalde, who collapsed and died during the opening round of the national championship in March. The 49-year-old, who lived in Mina Clavero, was a legend in South American rallying and remains the only driver from that continent to win a full world championship event. His ashes were scattered beside the road where in the early 1970s he rose to prominence by beating a string of the world's best drivers in an invitation race. The road is now known as the Giulio Cesare stage and forms the penultimate test of the rally.