BP-Ford and Gardemeister take WRC lead to Mexico BP-Ford World Rally Team will defend its lead in the FIA World Rally Championship in Mexico next week as the series moves for the first time in 2005 onto the gravel roads which are the dominant ...
BP-Ford and Gardemeister take WRC lead to Mexico
BP-Ford World Rally Team will defend its lead in the FIA World Rally Championship in Mexico next week as the series moves for the first time in 2005 onto the gravel roads which are the dominant surface of the season. The team that leads both the manufacturers' and drivers' standings after two rounds has shuffled its line-up for the Corona Rally Mexico (10 - 13 March) to capitalise on the extra experience in its squad of a rally making only its second appearance in the series.
Finns Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen lead the drivers' championship in their Castrol-branded Ford Focus RS World Rally Car after podium finishes in both Monte Carlo and Sweden. Privately-entered Spaniards Dani Solà and Xavier Amigo have good experience of the central Mexican speed tests and they will be nominated to score manufacturer points. Roman Kresta and Jan Možný will drive the BP Ultimate-liveried Focus RS, aiming to continue an excellent start to the season in which Kresta has scored points on both rounds.
The rally made an instant impression on its championship debut in 2004. Its special stages offer something of everything, ranging from narrow and twisty sections to fast, flowing stretches on both hard-packed gravel and a softer, sandy surface. It is the highest rally in the series, the undulating roads climbing to more than 2700 metres on hillsides awash with cacti, pine trees and river crossings. Voted the second best rally last year, it will offer the best guideline to the season ahead as it is the first of 11 gravel events in the 16-round series.
The thinner air experienced at high altitude will have a marked effect on the engine performance of all cars. BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson explained: "It was one aspect of the rally that surprised us in 2004. It is compensated for in the engine mapping, but I would estimate that all cars were about 30 per cent down on power."
As championship leader, 29-year-old Gardemeister faces the dubious privilege of being first to start the stages on Friday's opening leg. If the tracks close to the rally base in Leon are covered in loose gravel, then throughout the morning the Focus RS driver could unwittingly adopt the role of sweeping the stones away to leave a clearer and faster driving line for those behind.
"It could be difficult if the road surface is loose," he said. "We could drop time by starting ahead of our rivals but as I haven't been to Mexico before, I don't really know what the stages will be like. But given the choice of running further down the order or leading the championship and starting first, I would happily have accepted the current situation. I hope it's no better for the next round either, because that would mean I would still be leading the championship.
Gardemeister did not compete in Mexico last year and knows this adds another challenge. "My inexperience here means we must work hard during the practice to ensure our pace notes are as accurate as possible. There has been big interest in Finland since I took the championship lead in Sweden. There has been huge coverage in the newspapers and on websites and it's good for both me and Ford that our results so far have attracted that kind of attention," added Gardemeister.
Kresta is also starting in Mexico for the first time. In addition to his inexperience, the 28-year-old Czech will be partnered by Možný for the first time after regular co-driver Jan Tomanek stepped down for medical reasons. "Mexico is totally new to me and will be another event where I must learn about the characteristics of the stages as the rally progresses," said Kresta. "I have no pressure to take points for the team so that allows me to drive at a pace at which I am comfortable. It is important to learn as much about the roads as possible so I will not take any risks.
"It will be difficult initially to settle in with a new co-driver and we will work hard during the recce on our pace notes. But Jan has worked with me for two years in my safety crew so he has a good grasp of my pace note system and hopefully we won't have any major problems," he added.
Solà has more experience of Mexico than all but one of his WRC rivals. The 2002 junior world champion competed in the non-championship 2003 rally and won the Group N production car category last year. This will be his debut in a Focus RS, which is prepared by M-Sport and supported by Telefonica MoviStar and the organising body of Spain's WRC event, the RACC.
"I know the rally better than most but I must get used to the new car," said 30-year-old Solà. "I've tested the Focus twice and I have an incredible feeling. It's the best car I've driven. The dampers, the suspension and the whole balance of the car feels good. Of course, I don't know the limits yet but my first impressions are that it's easy to drive. It's difficult to know what is possible in Mexico. I need to drive progressively at first to understand and learn the car in a competition setting."
Solà and Amigo spent several days at M-Sport's British base to familiarise themselves with the set-up there. "We learned much about how M-Sport works and the organisation. We spent time in the workshop learning the car and how to change parts. I was a mechanic and it's important to know how to work on the car if we need to," Solà added.
German Antony Warmbold and Michael Orr will drive a second M-Sport run Focus RS.
* Heavy rain shortened the team's five-day test near Malaga in southern Spain this week. Planned as a warm weather, gravel test in preparation for hot events in the first half of the season, conditions were more suited to the type of wet roads often encountered in New Zealand or Britain. Gardemeister completed 187km on the rain-soaked opening two days while Kresta covered 139km on the second and third days. The poor weather affected tyre testing but Gardemeister gathered good data on differential and shock absorber settings in slippery conditions.
* BP-Ford has nominated only Michelin's Z patterned tyre for the rally which is ideally suited to the essentially hard surface gravel roads found in Mexico. By naming only one pattern, the team can nominate a wider range of compounds and constructions of that design. If conditions become wet or drivers face roads covered with plenty of loose gravel, the team can hand-cut the Z pattern into a more open design similar to Michelin's ZA rubber.
The compact nature of the event and fewer competitive kilometres for 2005 makes this easily the shortest world rally ever at only 928.74km. The route never strays more than 50km from rally headquarters in Leon, 400km north of Mexico City, and 38 per cent of the route is competitive. It is also the highest round of the championship, the second stage of the opening leg climbing through cacti-filled mountains to a breathtaking 2737 metres. The rally will begin on Thursday evening with a carnival-like ceremonial start in Guanajuato, 50km from Leon. The town is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, famed for its beauty and an extensive system of underground tunnels. The action on all three days is located north and east of Leon. There are 14 stages in total, six of which are used twice, although one stretch of road is used five times. Both stages on the final leg are new and the last is a daunting 44.39km, likely to be the longest test of the season.