Rally Mexico: Ford preview

New rules and roads create tough mix in Mexico for Ford After a successful start to the FIA World Rally Championship season on the two most specialised rallies of the year, the Ford BP Rally Sport team faces a massive step into the unknown in ...

New rules and roads create tough mix in Mexico for Ford

After a successful start to the FIA World Rally Championship season on the two most specialised rallies of the year, the Ford BP Rally Sport team faces a massive step into the unknown in Mexico next week for round three of the 16-event series. The squad faces a rally that is the first of three events this year that are new to the championship, as well as a host of cost-cutting rule changes which will provide a tough challenge to both drivers and team management alike.

Ford BP's Focus RS World Rally Cars scored well in both Monte Carlo and Sweden to lie second in the manufacturers' standings, just two points from the lead. Both offered typically inconsistent conditions so the Rally Mexico (11 - 14 March) will be viewed as the best guideline so far for the season ahead, as the competition is fought out on gravel roads - the surface on which most of the championship is held.

The Rally Mexico is the first North American round of the championship since the United States hosted the Olympus Rally in 1988. Consequently, like virtually all their rivals, 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. Most of the special stages are fast, wide and smooth, conditions which will suit the Focus RS and delight Märtin especially, although a third are classed as slow and twisty.

The rally is based in León, 400km north of Mexico City, while the stages are located amid stunning scenery high in the mountains around the city. Heavy summer rain badly damaged the roads but the state government resurfaced virtually the entire route to ensure the stages will be in excellent condition.

Mexico's promotion to the championship means drivers must make new pace notes for the entire route, in a practice period that has been condensed into less than two days under new regulations. Other new rules introduced in Mexico are the scrapping of the traditional pre-event scrutineering of cars, a shortened 'shakedown' test session before the start, new 'flexi-service' timing so mechanics and engineers can work on only one car at a time in the service park, and the banning of gravel crews who used to drive the stages before the competitors to provide last-minute updates on conditions.

But perhaps the biggest change concerns tyres. As in previous years, Ford BP must nominate two Michelin tread patterns several weeks before a rally but the team must now also register with the FIA the unique bar codes which identify each individual tyre. Each driver is now restricted to a rally allocation equivalent to ten times the number of scheduled tyre fitting points (groups of stages).

To ensure there is no unfair time advantage, drivers have just three minutes from checking into the service arrival control to nominate which tyres will be fitted once in the service park itself and submit the bar codes for checking against the original nominations. Because Mexico is a new event, teams have little data about the terrain and the climate, ensuring tyre selection could be far from simple.

Mistakes could prove costly and Ford BP has prepared thoroughly for the changes, briefing team members in advance to ensure everyone understands the regulation revisions.

"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," added the Estonian.

The introduction of a new rally into the series assists 23-year-old Duval. He is one of the least experienced drivers in the championship but will not be at a disadvantage. "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," he said.

The Belgian has prepared for the hot weather which will make cockpit temperatures uncomfortably high. "Every night recently I have been using the sauna to get used to the heat. It's going to be hot and the stages are quite long so fitness will be an important factor. By preparing in this way I think that I will arrive in Mexico used to the heat and fatigue in the car won't be a problem for me," he added.

Team News

* 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 and François Duval completed a successful five-day mixed surface test in Spain last week, completing more than 1150km.  With the Focus RS WRC 04 shortly to take to the stages, the team was able to carry out comparison testing with the 2003 car.  Duval completed a day's asphalt
tyre testing near Vic with Michelin before moving close to Barcelona to concentrate on set-up work for the rallies in Mexico and New Zealand.  Märtin then took over for two days of research and development work on dry gravel roads.  On the final day the team encountered torrential rain and with temperatures falling as low as 2°C, the roads were similar to those expected in Argentina in July.

* Following the Swedish Rally, Märtin displayed Michelin's new X-Ice road tyre to media from the Baltic countries on snow and ice at a winter test track in Ivalo, northern Finland. Today he is also due to give passenger rides to British media at an ice track at Chamonix in the French Alps. Märtin attended the Geneva Show earlier this week as Ford Team RS unveiled the new Fiesta JWRC rally car together with the Fiesta ST and Fiesta RS Concept performance road cars.

* Duval will be awarded the 'Citoyen d'Honneur' in his home town of Chimay in Belgium on Friday 19 March. The honour officially gives him the freedom of Chimay.

Rally Route

The rally is one of the most compact of the season. At no point does the route move further than 50km from rally headquarters in León and of the 1040km total distance, 38% is competitive. It is also the highest round of the championship, with the opening stage climbing through cacti-filled mountains to a breathtaking 2700m. The rally will begin on Thursday with a spectacular carnival-like ceremonial start in Guanajuato, 52km from León. The town is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, famed for its beauty and an extensive underground system of tunnels. The competition on all three days is located to the north and east of León and offers 394.43km of action and the second leg is the longest with 154.34km of competition. There are 15 stages in total, six of which are repeated and one stretch of road is used four times.

-ford racing-

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Series WRC