Western bound, gravel ahoy!
After the asphalt of the Monte Carlo Rally and the snow and ice of Scandinavia, the transatlantic crossing to Mexico marks the inaugural dirt fixture of the season. Loose surface events account for more than half of the 2007 WRC's sixteen rounds and will keep crews busy until the end of August. Accordingly, Rally Mexico will serve as an early form guide and is especially eagerly awaited this year since it will see two new cars -- the Citroen C4 WRC and the Subaru Impreza WRC2007 -- make their gravel debut.
Situated about 400km north of Mexico City, Leon is the world's leather footwear capital. The city centre is a maze of small shops brimming over with shoes, boots, moccasins and slippers. This weekend, however, the trend on the streets is for lead-soled shoes... The lead itself can be found a short drive across the Silao Plain in Guanajuato, a picturesque mining town boasting UNESCO World Heritage Site status. In its underground labyrinth of tunnels first dug out by the Conquistadors some 500 years ago, gold and silver is also to be found, and that's more what the WRC stars will be looking for.
Rally Mexico is the first gravel encounter of the 2007 campaign. Its extremely compact format (stages account for 43% of a total route length of 849.55km) takes crews into the Sierra de Lobos and the Sierra de Guanajuato near Leon. The wide, beckoning, technically-challenging tracks through these mountains take competitors to altitudes of more than 2,000 metres. But while the stages of the Rally Mexico are a delight for the drivers, they are less tailored to the needs of the turbocharged engines which suffer from a lack of oxygen.
The Rally Mexico is also a challenge for tyres which have to provide first class traction and flawless lateral grip through the long fast corners. And although the local gravel roads are not all that aggressive, the high temperatures and long loops could lead to high wear rates.
Indeed, every one of the groups of stages totals more than 60 competitive kilometres, and Saturday afternoon's 81.40km loop of five tests with the same tyres is seen by BFGoodrich's technical staff as a particularly big challenge. "The lifespan of a WRC tyre is between 60 and 80km," explains BFGoodrich's chief technician Patrick Letort. "So 81km is very close to the tyres' limits. Also, this loop is scheduled for Saturday afternoon when the temperature is likely to be at its highest (the forecast is for around 25/30C). Also, the stages will already have been used during the morning and therefore promise to be rougher. This will be a true test of the g-Force Gravel's resistance to wear."
QUOTAS - Priority 1 drivers have a maximum quota of 60 tyres of which they will be able to use a maximum of 33 (rally + shakedown). These tyres were nominated on January 25. Since 2005, Priority 1 drivers have had to register each tyre before the start. For example, of the 60 tyres that make up their selection for Mexico, priority drivers had to choose a mix of medium and hard compounds, not forgetting a few soft compound alternatives should it rain. All tyres are marked with barcodes.
RUNNING ORDERS - Running orders play an important role in Mexico since the first drivers on the road genrally have to sweep aside a thin loose top-coating that tends to cover the stages. On Friday, Marcus Gronholm and Mikko Hirvonen (Ford/BFGoodrich) will be first and second on the road and will be especially handicapped over the 70.66km of the first loop -- unless it rains.
TESTING PROHIBITED IN MEXICO - The Rally Mexico has two special features: it is the first gravel fixture of the year and on-site testing is not permitted. For the two new cars (the Citroen and the Subaru), it will be their first outing on dirt and therefore uncharted territory.
PREPARATION IN SPAIN - BFGoodrich's partner teams prepared for the Rally Mexico by testing in Spain on tracks resembling those they will find in Mexico as closely as possible. At the end of February, Subaru set up camp close to the Portuguese border, Citroen was based near Tarragona and Ford was in southern Spain.
THE NEW SUBARU IMPREZA WRC - The Subaru team is launching a new evolution of the Impreza WRC (codename 'S12b') on an event that has tended to be successful hunting ground for the Japanese make and Petter Solberg (1st in 2005 and 2nd in 2006).
TWO BFGOODRICH CHAMPIONS - Two BFGoodrich champions will be contesting the Rally Mexico: Sebastien Loeb (2006 World Champion with BFGoodrich) and Travis Pastrana (the 2006 USA Champion, also with BFGoodrich). The paths of the two men crossed recently at the Stade de France in Paris during The Race of Champions. This is Pastrana's first WRC entry with a Group N Subaru Impreza/BFGoodrich.
INTERCONTINENTAL RALLY CHALLENGE - This new series for S2000s, Group Ns and Kit-Cars kicks off this weekend in Kenya with the Safari Rally where BFGoodrich will be supplying the works Fiat Grande Puntos of Italians Umberto Scandola and Andrea Navarra. The event is today based on a conventional format with stages of between 4 and 32km in length, but the conditions promise to be true to the classic's former reputation, that is to say tough on both the mechanicals and the tyres which won't have mousse run-flat inserts. The rally starts on Nairobi on Friday March 9 at 3pm local time and finishes in the Kenyan capital at 3pm on Sunday March 11.
P-WRC - BFGoodrich is present in this year's Production World Rally Championship. Juho Hanninen (Mitsubishi/BFGoodrich) won the Swedish Rally before being disqualified after post-event scrutineering. Japan's Toshi Arai (2005 P-WRC Champion), Subaru Impreza is now running on BFGoodrich tyres, will be one to watch this weekend.