BP-Ford aims for Focus RS hat-trick as WRC heads onto loose
FIA World Rally Championship leader BP-Ford journeys to Mexico next week bidding for an early season treble as the series moves for the first time onto the gravel roads which are the dominant surface of the year. Rally Mexico (8 - 11 March) is the first of nine gravel events in the 16-rally championship and as such this third round of the 2007 campaign will offer the best guideline to date for the season ahead.
Victories for the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car on consecutive weekends last month on the snow and ice of Sweden and Norway propelled the team into a 16-point advantage in the manufacturers' standings. Sweden victors Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen have opened a four-point lead in the drivers' championship over team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, winners in Norway.
Based in Leon in the centre of the north American country, the rally is the highest in the championship. Most speed tests are over 2000m and the first leg climbs to more than 2700m on hillsides awash with cacti and water crossings. The altitude takes its toll on cars, the thinner air meaning engines 'run out of breath' and can lose up to 30 per cent of their usual power.
The special stages are mainly fast and flowing, some using roads built specifically for the rally. They comprise hard-packed gravel as well as a sandier surface. Their smooth nature means tyre wear is not excessive. However the durability of BFGoodrich's rubber fitted to the Focus RS cars will be important as the competitive distance between tyre changing regularly exceeds 70km and goes up to more than 81km on the second leg.
Gronholm has finished all three previous WRC events in Mexico, his best result being second in 2005. "There is nothing unusual about the rally, it is quite a normal gravel event," he said. "The surface is quite smooth and there are good combinations of fast and slower sections. The main aspect of this rally is the altitude. There is quite a significant power loss in the mountains and at the highest parts the engine feels 'dead'. But that is the same for everyone and we can't do anything to change it."
As championship leader, Gronholm will be first to tackle the stages on Friday's opening leg. Hot weather and little recent rain mean the roads could be covered in slippery loose gravel and this is something he also experienced in 2006.
"It wasn't so bad last year so I'm not worried about it. In fact I'm happy because to start first means I'm leading the championship and that's the best place to be! In some places it was tricky but generally it wasn't a big problem. It will only have an effect on Friday morning because the afternoon stages are repeats," added the 39-year-old Finn, who enjoyed a family ski holiday in Norway after the previous round there.
Hirvonen has an unblemished finish record from his two previous starts in Mexico and is full of confidence after victory in Norway. "I'm eager to get started but I admit I don't know what to expect," he said. "After beating Marcus and Sebastien Loeb in a straight fight in Norway, I'm unsure what will happen in Mexico. I'm not expecting to challenge them both on gravel immediately. I think it will take a few more rallies to get onto their pace, but there again you never know.
"After such a long break since our last gravel rally, it was a great idea to have a test this week. The last two rallies were on snow, which required a different driving style. It takes a while to get back into the rhythm of driving on gravel and so the test was perfectly timed to do just that. I have a good base set-up for gravel events anyway but the test helped confirm that.
"Mexico isn't the most difficult rally in the championship but it can be surprisingly rough. On the recce the roads seem smooth with no big stones or awkward bumps, but at rally speeds I am always surprised how rough it feels," added the 26-year-old Finn.
* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force gravel tyre for the medium-wear loose surface roads. The pattern is relatively compact to ensure a maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the ground for the best possible grip and traction. The grooves can be hand cut to open them if there is a lot of loose gravel on the road surface or if the tracks become muddy. The tyres will be available in medium and hard compounds.
* The team today completes a five-day development test on gravel in northern Spain focused on trialling new parts for the evolution version of the Focus RS WRC 06, which is due to debut on Rally Finland in August. It also gave the drivers valuable 'seat time' on gravel ahead of Rally Mexico, the first time they have driven on gravel since Rally GB in December. Hirvonen drove for the opening three days with Gronholm taking over for the last two days.
* Nine of the 49 entered crews are driving Focus RS WRCs. In addition to entries from the BP-Ford, Stobart VK M-Sport and Munchi's teams, there are also two privately-run Focus RS cars to be driven by Irish father and son Austin and Gareth MacHale.
It has the shortest route ever for a WRC event, covering just 849.55km with a remarkable 43 per cent of that being competitive. There are only small changes to last year's route, much of the distance saved courtesy of a new highway. The event is again based in Leon, 400km north of Mexico City, with the stages to the north and east. It is the highest round in the series, with the opening day's Ortega test climbing through cacti-filled mountains to a breathtaking 2737 metres. It begins on Thursday evening with a fiesta-like ceremonial start in Guanajuato, which last year drew almost 60,000 fans. The town is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, famed for its beauty and underground network of roads. The first two legs each comprise two identical loops of three stages before two passes over a super special stage at Leon's race circuit. The track also hosts a double run on Sunday morning to bring the rally to a close. Drivers tackle 20 stages covering 366.06km.