The third round of the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship, Corona Rally Mexico, starts on March 12 as the series returns to North America after an absence of more than 15 years. Following a ceremonial start in Guanajuato City on Thursday 11 March,...
The third round of the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship, Corona Rally Mexico, starts on March 12 as the series returns to North America after an absence of more than 15 years. Following a ceremonial start in Guanajuato City on Thursday 11 March, the event will commence on Friday morning when 59 competitors from 25 different nations head to the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato mountains for the opening Leg of the three-day competition.
The event is based in Léon, 380 kilometers to the northwest of México City, and is the fifth biggest city in the country with 1.2 million inhabitants. It is also the largest city in the State of Guanajuato and boasts a population of 50 million within a 400 kilometer radius.
With the introduction of new regulations, a number of different features will also be seen in México. Reconnaissance will take place on Wednesday and Thursday, there will be a reduction in the number of tires permitted on this first gravel round of the season - from a virtually free quantity to a maximum of 10 tires in two patterns per crew per tire change opportunity - as well as flexi-service in the middle of the day. Tires, in particular, will be critical for the registered manufacturer crews and just 60 will be permitted per car during the three days of the rally.
Harri Rovanpera competed in the event last year, Sebastien Loeb participated in recce only.
Citroen may have won the first two rounds of the 2004 World Rally Championship in Monte Carlo and Sweden but this weekend (11-14 March 2004) they, like everyone else head into the unknown when they head south of the border, down Mexico way for the newest round of the World Rally Championship.
Sébastien Loeb / Daniel Elena: "I effectively did the recce last year and that enabled me to discover the rally's basic setting, namely the hilly region between León and Guanajuato, Seb explains. "The stages themselves were varied, with a mixture of slow and quick portions, even very quick in places. The width of the roads was also variable according to their importance and there was a big altitude difference, but the hard surface of the stages could cut up. The slowest parts are reminiscent of Cyprus, but overall the rally is more like Argentina where the stages are very varied too. The 2004 route seems fairly similar to last year's, although a number of stages will be run in the opposite direction."
Carlos Sainz / Marc Marti: "Honestly, I don't believe I'm a first-time-out specialist," says Carlos. "I don't think there's a secret either. Perhaps I simply got a grasp of certain events more quickly than the others and that helped me win on those occasions. Each new event is a fresh adventure, a fresh challenge. Personally, I find that very stimulating. In Mexico, I am hoping for a good finish. I must score points to reduce my deficit in the Drivers' championship and also to help Citroën stay in front in the Manufacturers' standings."
Ford BP drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park and team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot will be tackling the Mexican speed tests for the first time. Rally Mexico will be the final event for the Focus RS WRC 03 as an official car. The 2004 car is due for homologation on 1 April and will make its debut on Rally New Zealand.
Markko Martin / Michael Park: "The new rules will make tyre selection even more difficult," said 28-year-old Märtin, who lies third in the drivers' championship. "The number of options available to drivers is now less and that makes the nomination process several weeks before the rally even more important. Because the championship hasn't been to Mexico before, we had to choose the tread pattern before we had even seen the roads. Make a mistake at this point and a team could effectively lose the rally weeks before it even starts. It has been a long time since we had a fast gravel rally but I believe the stages are mostly fast and flowing which are the type of roads I enjoy and on which the Focus is good. The recce period will be hard because we have to make notes for the whole route and we have less than two days in which to do it. We can expect some early starts and long days. Almost all the top drivers have never seen these stages before and that means the level of experience is the same for virtually everyone. Testing on long-haul rallies is forbidden so we all have a lot to learn about car set-up. Those drivers that learn the quickest, will gain a big advantage,"
Francios Duval / Stefan Prevot: "Because of this I think that as long as we do not have any problems or make any mistakes, it's possible to finish inside the top five. I prefer slower rallies but now that I have experience of fast gravel events like Finland and New Zealand, they don't give me any real difficulties. I had two days of good testing in Spain last month and I'm feeling confident."
After concluding its debut outing, the Monte Carlo Rally, in 4th place, followed by a 2nd place in snowy Sweden, the next sortie for the Peugeot 307 WRC will be Mexico, its first attempt at a 100% gravel route. Marcus Grönholm and his fellow Finn Harri Rovanperä will drive the two cars entered by Peugeot in the 2004 World Rally Championship.
Marcus Gronhölm / Timo Rautiainen: "I finished the first two rallies of the year in 4th and 2nd place but perhaps I could have come away with better. The season has only just begun though, and the recent testing I did, which focused on the set-up of the car and the differential, was very positive. I think we have found a good set-up that should make the car more competitive for its first outing on the loose. We have worked well--"
Harri Rovanperä / Risto Pietiläinen: "I was impressed by the high standard of the work put in by the organisers despite the fact that they had no previous experience of world rallying," he recalls. "The event went very well and the atmosphere was very pleasant even though there weren't many spectators. The rally is based in the industrial city of Leon but the stages are beautiful and challenging. Some are fast, others are twistier, while the surface is quite smooth although fairly slippery with lots of sand and dust. Personally, I am delighted to be back with Peugeot after a rather long winter break. I recently did some testing in Sardinia where I was given a very warm welcome by the team. That was very nice."
The Subaru World Rally Team will be entering two cars in the Corona Rally Mexico, driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Mikko Hirvonen (co-driven by Jarmo Lehtinen). In common with the majority of WRC drivers, Petter and Mikko will be drawing on their knowledge of similar smooth, gravel events as they make their Mexican rally debuts next week. The Subaru World Rally Team has joined forces with the world's best selling Mexican beer, Corona Extra, in a sponsorship deal to be unveiled at Corona Rally Mexico, which starts from Leon on 11 March.
Petter Solberg / Phil Mills: "Sweden feels like a long time ago now, but it was good to get some points there. I think Mexico is going to be a good rally. I've heard that it should be nice weather during the event and I'm told that stages are very wide and fast so it's going to be interesting. I like to see new events being included in the Championship, that's for sure. It will be my first visit to Mexico. My engineers have been there to have a look at the condition of the stages and what they've reported back to me has sounded promising. Apparently the stages are very mixed and that's good, especially from a driving point of view. I'm looking forward to getting behind the wheel of the new car too. It felt very good during testing. We've clocked up a lot of miles so now I just want to get out there and get going!"
Mikko Hirvonen / Jarmo Lehtinen: "Mexico is going to be new for everybody so it's going to be an interesting event. I don't know exactly what the stages are like, but I've seen photos and had reports from the team and it looks good. It will be a fun event to drive I think, and I'm excited about going there. I think the fact that the event will be new for most of the leading drivers will be a small advantage for me - especially compared to Sweden and Monaco. It could mean that more experienced drivers are more likely to make a small mistake, but it won't affect anyone's speed. The speeds will be the same as normal - so that means they'll be fast! This will be my first gravel event with the team and the first event with the new car and so there are new challenges. The pre-event testing went very well and the feeling of the car was very good, so I'm looking forward to seeing how we go on the gravel in Mexico."
Mitsubishi Motors Motor Sports has no experience of the event, although tire partner Michelin already has some knowledge of the gravel roads high in the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato mountains. The team's development work has been intense since Sweden, with a 10-day test in Spain involving both Gilles and Gigi behind the wheel.
Gilles Panizzi / Herve Panizzi: "We are really at the beginning and for me this test is the first real test with this car. Before Monte-Carlo and Sweden it was just to drive the car and see everything. Now we have started with the development and okay, I am happy because we find some things and the engineers can find solutions for the suspension, diffs, traction, gearbox, everything. I am happy because the car has progressed and we are going in the right direction. We need time, but the engineers and mechanics do a great job and I am very confident. There is a good spirit, and that counts for a lot"
Gigi Gali / Guido d'Amore: "The time in the car is most important", he said. "I didn't get so much time in Monte-Carlo because we went off the road, and I want to know the car very well first. This is a new race for everyone and we don't know the conditions at all, but I hope we can make a good result. With the regulation for the tires it will be difficult for all the teams and we won't know if the choice we made for the rally will be right until the end of the first leg. But Michelin has good experience already and their advice will be very important to us".
As usual, Mitsubishis are a popular choice throughout the Group N production car category, with many local drivers choosing Lancer Evolutions. The Mexicans are naturally looking forward to measuring up against World Championship opposition on home ground and will be represented by a host of former national rally champions, including Alejandro Pimentel (1997), Carlos Izquierdo (2002) - who finished second to Harri Rovanperä in 2002 - and Erwin Richter, the country's reigning title holder.