The action is getting hotter as the Subaru World Rally Team crosses to Mexico for round four of the World Rally Championship, with the debut of a new-for-2007 Impreza rally car set to be one of the focal points of the weekend. The team's new WRC2007, which will form the foundation of the team's World Rally Championship campaign for the rest of the season, will be used in competition for the first time on this event.
The rally circus has left behind the icy asphalt of Monte Carlo and the snow-bound forests of Sweden and Norway to take on the next challenge: the gravel roads and soaring temperatures of the Guanajuato region in the central highlands of Mexico.
The rally is based in the city of Leon, also known as The Shoe Capital, because it is the hub of the country's footwear industry. This is the championship's only visit to the North American continent and the first 'long-haul' event of the year for the teams and drivers. For 2007 the service area remains indoors, under the roof of the Poliforum Expo Centre, while the majority of the stages take the crews into the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato mountain ranges.
Now in its fourth year of inclusion in the WRC calendar, the route takes crews to the highest stages of the season. The medium to high speed, hard-packed gravel roads climb up the side of spectacular valleys, with some peaks rising more than 2700 metres above sea level.
The second stage of the event, Ortega, has the highest peak and the altitude of the tests brings additional challenges for Subaru World Rally Team engineers. At that height the air is thinner and engines struggle to 'breathe'. This means engine power output will be reduced and cooling becomes less efficient. To some extent the two problems compensate for each other, since the engine produces less power, but it also puts out less heat. As a result, average speeds are far lower than on lower-altitude rallies run over similar terrain.
The stages are very tricky, with an unpredictable mix of fast and slow sections that do not naturally flow, meaning the drivers find it tough to establish a rhythm. Overall, the stages are quite sandy. They're also a little like those that the drivers tackle in Sardinia, as they include sections that are quite narrow and twisty.
Geographically, Mexico has always been one of the most compact rallies on the World Rally Championship calendar and the total length of this year's event is shorter then ever before. The total distance of 849.55km includes 366.06km of timed special stages and 483.49km of liaison on public roads. The ceremonial start of the rally takes place in Guanajuato City at 1930hrs (local time, six hours behind GMT) on Thursday 8 March and the first of 20 special stages blasts into action at 0828hrs the next day.
The Subaru World Rally Team had entered two examples of the new Impreza WRC2007 for Rally Mexico. As usual, Petter Solberg/Phil Mills will drive car number seven, while Chris Atkinson/Glenn Macneall will be in car number eight. The event has been a fruitful one for Petter and Phil in the past -- they won there in 2005, finished second last year and finished fourth on the inaugural Rally Mexico back in 2004. The team's Australian pairing have contested the rally twice and ended last year's event in seventh position.
Richard Taylor, Subaru World Rally Team managing director: "We're looking forward to introducing our 2007 car in Mexico and our target for the event is to improve on the results that we've achieved so far this season. It's the first true gravel event of the season and also the first time our cars will have competed on BFGoodrich tyres in this kind of terrain and conditions."
Paul Howarth, Subaru World Rally Team operations director: "For the drivers it is going to be a challenging event, not least because of the effect of the high altitude and the hot weather. Several of the special stage routes get used more than once and the roads could be quite cut up when the cars go through for the second time. This event is paired with Argentina, so the engines, transmissions and chassis we use here will also have to be fitted to the cars for the next long-haul gravel event in May. Historically Mexico has been quite good for us: Petter has always gone well there in the past and enjoys the stages, while Chris has also been very fast on this type of event. Many of the stages are similar to those used in 2006 so both drivers will be quite familiar with them. Hopefully with the new car, we will be in a position to allow Petter to put more pressure on his main rivals."
Petter Solberg: "We had a very good test in Spain and found some interesting developments with the car. It seems to have good traction and my feeling is that there are many areas where we have taken a step forward from last year. We may still have a few areas to work on but that is something we can do during Rally Mexico or at the next test. I feel quite happy with the preparation we have done for this rally, but we won't know until the start how we compare with the other teams. It's a rally we like a lot: I have always gone quite well there. Hopefully this event is going to be the start of a new phase for team and we just have to build it up from Mexico for the rest of the season."
Chris Atkinson: "It's going to be interesting to tackle the first proper gravel rally of the season, especially now that we've got the new car as well. We've been in the points in Mexico before and that's certainly the aim again this year. However we'll only be able to predict our overall performance level when we see where the improvements of our new car put us in relation to the other teams. We missed out on points in Norway after scoring in Monte Carlo and Sweden, so the priority for this event is to get ourselves in a good position to move up the championship table."
Between the rallies
The Subaru World Rally Team drivers head to Mexico this weekend fresh from a four-day test session with the new Impreza WRC2007 in the Huelva province, south-western Spain.