Three weeks after Rally Sweden, the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship moves to North America next week for the first gravel round of the series, Corona Rally Mexico. The World Championship's only American event was new to the series last year, but...
Three weeks after Rally Sweden, the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship moves to North America next week for the first gravel round of the series, Corona Rally Mexico. The World Championship's only American event was new to the series last year, but was such a resounding success that it won a prestigious award at the first attempt. Based in Mexico's leather capital of Leon, the route is one of the highest of the season, peaking at more than 2,700 metres above sea level, and takes in medium to fast gravel roads that are classics in the making. The stages are quite varied in speed and character, calling for a good all-round compromise set-up. Conditions are normally warm, and as Mexico is the first gravel rally after two highly specialised events, it is an invaluable opportunity to assess the performance of every team and driver on a level playing field.
Ford's Toni Gardemeister leads the championship after finishing on the podium at the first 2 attempts but will need more speed if he is to fend of the challenge of rivals Marcus Gronholm, Petter Solberg and Sebastien Loeb. Peugeot and Ford will be looking for their first wins of the seasons whilst Mitsubishi and Skoda will be aiming to make further progress up the time sheets.
Citroen head to Meixco having won the last loose surface event in Australia at the end of 2004. Monte Carlo winner Sebastien Loeb and Belgium's Francois Duval will once again pilot the Xsara WRCs with Loeb aiming to shoot to the top of the championship standings.
Sebastien Loeb / Daniel Elena: "The stages are quite fast and not too rough. I like it. The thing I found the most surprising to begin with was the inevitable drop off in power you get at this altitude. You can't help but feel it and it tends to be the only thing you think of. Then you begin to get accustomed to it and you end up not paying it any more attention. In any case, it's the same for everyone."
Francois Duval / Stephane Prevot: "The Mexican stages are quite similar to those of Argentina. They're not easy to read, there are sandy portions and the roads are narrow in places. As for my approach, it's clear we have to finish, and high up. That means finding the right pace, quick and safe. In Sweden, before losing a lot of time when I was forced to change a wheel following a puncture, I think I found that balance."
The Subaru World Rally Team will be entering two new Impreza WRC05 cars on the Corona Rally Mexico driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Chris Atkinson (co-driven by Glenn Macneall). Stephane Sarrazin and co-driver Denis Giraudet will complete the recce to gain experience of the event. After suffering some cruel luck in Mexico last year, when a time penalty cost him the chance of a maiden victory (although he battled back to finish fourth), Solberg is hoping to put the record straight with a podium finish this time. His colleague Chris Atkinson has never driven the Mexican event before and is looking to get experience of the route as well as the car, on only his second WRC class outing.
Petter Solberg / Phil Mills: "Although I was a bit unlucky on Rally Mexico last year, it's a great event to take part in and I'm really looking forward to getting back next month. It's a very well run rally, last year the organisers did a very professional job considering it was their first year in the WRC, and I'd say it's one of the best events of the season. Mexico is an interesting place for us to visit too, and as a destination in the WRC it's somewhere I'd like to spend more time; the people, food, scenery and the whole atmosphere make it unique. The stages seem to suit the Subaru Impreza pretty well. We've got a new evolution of the car to launch this time and hopefully, if we have a clean run with no problems, we've got a good chance of winning."
Chris Atkinson/Glen Macneall: "Sweden was a big learning experience for me but that was the aim, to learn as much as possible. We achieved what we set out to and, although the overall result could have been better, we gained from every mistake we made and that's really important I think. We picked up on lots of little things that we could improve and they all came together, allowing me to improve my stage times. This will be our second rally in a WRC car and our first on gravel, so we've still got a lot of learn. I hope we'll be more comfortable on this event, due to the extra testing time that we've had in the car since Sweden. In addition, gravel is a surface that I'm much more familiar with. That said, the conditions in Mexico are not that similar to those in Australia. In Mexico it seems there's quite a hard base, which should offer good levels of grip and should be medium to high speed, which suits my driving style."
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 Mozný 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.
Toni Gardemeister/Jakke Honkanen: "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. 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.
Daniel Sola/Xavier Amigo: "I know the rally better than most but I must get used to the new car. 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."
Roman Kresta/Jan Tomanek: "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. 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."
Currently 2nd in the Manufacturers' world championship, Peugeot travels to the third round of the 2005 season in Mexico with the primary objective of harvesting as many points as possible with its two 307 WRCs. This target is shared by Marcus Gronholm, who is looking to put his misadventure in Sweden behind him as soon as possible, and by Markko Martin, winner of the inaugural Rally Mexico as a WRC qualifier twelve months ago.
Marcus Gronholm / Timo Rautiainen: "Personally, I will be principally out to score points. I was really affected by my retirement in Sweden and I want to put the incident behind me. I know I can count on the car's reliability and our recent events have been very positive on that front. We have also progressed in terms of performance and a long test session is planned in Europe to fine-tune the set-up. As for the majority of the other drivers, Rally Mexico was new to me last year. It's an interesting event and well organised. I am looking forward to it."
Markko Martin/Michael Park: "The stages are very varied, with slow and quick portions and no particular surprises to catch you out, and that's a good thing. I think we can do well. It would be great to win a second time but that won't be easy. I still have to accustom myself to the car and tyres which are new for me, especially on the loose. But we are making good progress."
After the ice and snow of Sweden, Corona Rally Mexico presents a totally different challenge to the Mitsubishi Motors Motor Sports WRC team. Harri Rovanpera and Risto Pietilainen return to the scene of a crushing victory, while team-mates Gilles and Herve Panizzi will be back behind the wheel of the second Lancer WRC05 after finishing on the podium in Rallye Monte-Carlo. The team will also be running the Mitsubishi Lancer WRC05s with its new active center differential for the first time in competition.
Harri Rovanpera/Risto Pietilainen: "The gravel test was good; we worked with the new differential system and also made some improvements to the suspension settings. Gilles continued with the test program so I will see the latest results during the shakedown test in Mexico. This was also my first test with the Pirelli gravel tire and the only small problem was that the weather conditions were slightly different to how they will be in Mexico, but the feeling was very good and I am quite confident with the Pirelli gravel tires".
Gilles Panizzi/Herve Panizzi: "I did two days and maybe 350 test kilometers of testing and I continue to say the car is getting better and better. The new active center differential helps a lot with the balance and traction, especially under braking into corners. We still need more experience with the new system, in particular with all the different adjustments, but I am confident. I also like Rally Mexico a lot because it has nice stages and is very interesting to drive".
The Skoda Motorsport World Rally Team heads for Rally Mexico with a new car, the Fabia WRC 05. Skoda did not participate in the rally last year, as none of the 'long haul' events outside Europe were included in the team's 2004 programme. The Skoda Fabia WRC 05 is immediately identifiable by its revised aerodynamic package and bold new livery. Under the skin are changes in several areas to further improve the performance of the car. A revised turbocharger has been fitted along with modified exhaust manifold and there have been several areas where weight savings have been made. Armin Schwarz returns to the wheel now fully recovered from the shoulder injury he suffered in Monte Carlo and which forced him to miss the Swedish Rally last month. The second Fabia WRC 05 will be driven by Jani Paasonen on his second appearance of the season for the team.
Armin Schwarz/Klaus Wicha: "We had a good test at the end of February in Spain where I drove around 400kms (a full rally distance) in two days. We had no problems with the Fabia WRC 05 and my shoulder was fine. The improvements to the car have made it more driveable so I am quite happy. I haven't competed here before but I did the recce in 2004. The stages remind me a lot of those around Fafe in Portugal which were some of the most enjoyable in the whole World Rally Championship."
Jani Paasonen/Janni Vainikka: "We had a good test session in Spain with the new Fabia WRC 05. We lost a bit of test time because of snow, which I don't expect we will see in Mexico! However, I still did about 250kms. I can already see some improvements from the previous car so I'm looking forward to the rally. I like this event very much. The roads are nice and I set some good times there with a Group N car in 2004."