WRC leaders Ford and Gronholm seek win treble in Mexico The unbeaten BP-Ford World Rally Team will take its lead in the FIA World Rally Championship to Mexico next week as the series moves for the first time onto the gravel roads which are the...
WRC leaders Ford and Gronholm seek win treble in Mexico
The unbeaten BP-Ford World Rally Team will take its lead in the FIA World Rally Championship to Mexico next week as the series moves for the first time onto the gravel roads which are the dominant surface of the season. After victories for BP-Ford on the two most specialised rounds of the series, the Rally Mexico (2 - 5 March) is the first of 11 gravel events in the 16-round series and will offer the best guideline so far for the year ahead.
The team made the perfect start to 2006 when Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen's Focus RS World Rally Car won on both the wintry asphalt roads in Monte Carlo and the snow and ice-covered tracks of Sweden. The Swedish victory was Ford's 50th world rally success and Gronholm will go to North America intent on becoming the first driver to claim three consecutive wins at the start of a season. Ford holds a two point lead in the manufacturers' standings while the Finns have a four point advantage in the drivers' series.
Both Gronholm and Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen have good records on a rally which has made a strong impression in only two years in the championship. Gronholm scored points on both previous outings, with a best result of second last year, while Hirvonen finished fifth on his only start in 2004.
The Mexican speed tests offer mainly fast, flowing roads on both hard-packed gravel and a softer, sandier surface. It is the highest rally in the series, the undulating special stages climbing to more than 2700 metres 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 lose up to 30 percent of their power.
The roads are smooth and tyre wear is not excessive. However, the competitive distance between tyre changing regularly exceeds 70km, one of the longest in the series. Therefore the durability of the BFGoodrich rubber fitted to the Focus RS cars, as well as the performance, will be important.
As championship leader, 38-year-old Gronholm will be first to start the stages on Friday's opening leg. Hot weather and little recent rain mean the tracks could be covered in slippery loose gravel, which would hinder the early starters. "I don't remember how much of a difficulty it has been in previous years," said Gronholm. "But Sebastien Loeb, who is our closest rival in the championship, starts only one car behind us so he won't have much of an advantage if there is loose gravel. But Petter Solberg could benefit a lot because he will start well down the order. It will only affect us for three stages on Friday morning because the afternoon stages are repeats.
"Mexico is quite a normal gravel rally. It's not particularly technical but has a good combination of fast and slower sections. The stages are held on a good surface, which is quite smooth, but cars tend to pick up quite a bit of damage and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's a combination of high speeds and stones coming through the surface during the second run over roads.
"Testing has gone well and I'm confident the car will be as competitive on gravel as it has been on asphalt and snow. I have a few small things to sort out with the brakes, but that's because I left-foot brake a lot," added Gronholm, who is recovering from 'flu which sidelined him during a ski-ing holiday in northern Finland.
Hirvonen's two-day gravel test this week in Spain left the Finn full of confidence for Mexico. "The feeling with the Focus was very good and provided a huge boost ahead of Mexico. In fact, I was quite surprised just how good it felt considering this was my first test in the car on smooth gravel. Before this week I had only driven the Focud on rough gravel and that was a reliability test. I developed a good base setting from which I can work for all the gravel events. I will work with the engineers to concentrate on the small details and to fine-tune the settings," he said.
"Mexico has a little of everything. It's surprisingly fast and I remember driving flat out for long sections. The surface can be abrasive and as the temperatures will be quite high, I think it could be hard for tyres, but I 'm sure that BFGoodrich will be well prepared. It's my first gravel rally since Japan last year but I've competed in Sweden and tested in both France and Spain on the loose so I don't see any problems in returning to the surface in competition," added 25-year-old Hirvonen.
* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force gravel tyres and teams are only allowed to nominate one tread pattern this year. 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 completed an eight-day test this week on both asphalt and gravel in northern Spain. It began on asphalt near Vic with Hirvonen driving for two days and Gronholm one, concentrating on set-up specification for the forthcoming asphalt rallies in Spain and Corsica. After a two-day rebuild the team moved west for five days of gravel, two for Hirvonen and three for Gronholm.
* The privately run Stobart-VK-M-Sport Ford Rally Team has entered two 2004-specification Focus RS WRCs. Britain's Matthew Wilson / Michael Orr and Argentines Luis Perez Companc / Jose Maria Volta will be the drivers, the first time Perez Companc has been nominated for points. Irish crew Gareth MacHale / Paul Nagle will drive a privately-entered similar car.
The route is virtually identical to 2005. At 1002.47km it is one of the most compact rallies of the year, with 36 per cent of the route competitive, and it never strays more than 50km from rally headquarters in Leon, 400km north of Mexico City. It is the highest round in the series, with the opening day's Guanajuato stage climbing through cacti-filled mountains to a breathtaking 2737 metres. The major innovation is the introduction of a super special stage on the edge of Leon which will be run in darkness at the end of the opening two legs before hosting the finale on Sunday morning. The rally begins on Thursday evening with a fiesta-like ceremonial start in Guanajuato, which last year drew more than 25,000 fans. The town is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, famed for its beauty and unique underground tunnel network. All the action is located north and east of Leon, the opening two legs comprising two identical loops of three tests before the super special stage. There are 17 tests in total covering 359.54km.