Mitsubishi Heads into Uncharted WRC Territory The third round of the FIA World Rally Championship takes Mitsubishi Motors Motor Sports to Mexico for the first-ever World Rally Championship event to be hosted in the country. Gilles and Herve ...
Mitsubishi Heads into Uncharted WRC Territory
The third round of the FIA World Rally Championship takes Mitsubishi Motors Motor Sports to Mexico for the first-ever World Rally Championship event to be hosted in the country. Gilles and Herve Panizzi along with team-mates "Gigi" Galli and Guido D'Amore will be driving the two registered Mitsubishi Lancer WRC04s and with very few crews having previously contested the event, Mexico could prove to be a more level-playing field for the team.
Rally Mexico has spent the last few years vying for inclusion in the FIA World Rally Championship and 2004 sees its first running at world status. The sport, at this level, is also returning to North America for the first time in more than 15 years and with such an enormous market in this region, it marks an important addition to the calendar for all the registered manufacturers. The event is based in Leon, 380 kilometers to the northwest of Mexico 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 Mexico. 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.
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. Altitude will also be a big consideration for the engineers, as the highest stage of the rally climbs to a breath-taking 2,737 meters making this run from Ortega to La Esperanza the highest in the entire FIA World Rally Championship.
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. "After Sweden we mainly spent time looking into what was wrong with the transmission and we now have some new parts to fix the problems", commented Team Technical Director Mario Fornaris. "We are currently testing those parts in Spain, as well as proving the reliability and setting up the car for the first time. We have a few different sets of shock absorbers and differentials and we hope to get more performance from the car. I am hoping that Mexico will see more reliability and a small overall step forward".
"About the new tire regulations for this first gravel rally, we will see what's going to happen. Of course this is all new for everybody, firstly about the regulation and secondly the rally itself. For sure it will be more difficult to predict which is the good tire for this rally and nobody really has any experience, except Peugeot. It's a gamble and we will have to see who is going to make the right choice. It is good that a world rally car has already run these stages though; it at least gives us an idea, but for me it is only a starting point, nothing more. Everything is also very dependent on the weather; we are expecting around 20 degrees and sunshine but if it turns out to be different, maybe there will be problems".
"And finally for the flexi-service, on one hand it is very interesting and a good cost saving, but on the other hand I am concerned that there is so little time to choose the tires. We have only three minutes before the car arrives in service to discuss things with the driver and this is quite difficult for lots of different reasons. I would prefer to see the drivers selecting tires once they are in service, but we will see".
Adding to his comments, Gilles Panizzi said: "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".
For Gigi, gaining experience in the Lancer WRC04 is his primary focus. "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".
Corona Rally Mexico kicks off with what is billed to be a spectacular ceremonial start on Thursday March 11 in Guanajuato, 53 kilometers from Leon. This captivating city is designated a UNESCO world heritage site and has traditionally drawn spectators in their thousands into the narrow streets lined with colorful and ancient buildings. Service for all three days of the rally is based at the Poliforum Expo Center in Leon and the opening leg on Friday takes the crews from here to the first four stages, one of which is repeated, and 108.03 competitive kilometers. The second leg is the longest and includes 154.34 competitive kilometers run over six stages, 44% of the total distance covered during the day. Two loops over three stages - all of which are longer than 23 kilometers - will provide a long and arduous day of competition for the crews before they return to Leon for the overnight halt. Sunday's closing leg takes in five stages, two of which are repeated, over a total of 132.06 competitive kilometers. The day also kicks off with the longest stage of the rally (Ibarrilla-Mesa) and this 30.47 kilometer stage will be run a second time as the penultimate stage of the event. In total, the route covers 15 stages, 394.43 competitive kilometers in a total distance of 1,040.67 kilometers before the finish in Leon at 14:30 hrs (GMT -6 hrs).
2004 FIA PRODUCTION CAR WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP - ROUND 2
Mitsubishi Drivers Look For Success in Mexico
A Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution won the 2003 Corona Rally Mexico and Mitsubishi Motors aims to build on that success in this year's event, which joins the FIA World Rally Championship for the first time and counts as the second round of the FIA Production Car World Championship. With a host of highly rated drivers in Lancer Evolutions, Mitsubishi has high hopes of repeating its victory on the first round, the Swedish Rally.
Mexico offers a new and exciting challenge, blending the spirit of competition with a sense of adventure. It will be the first World Championship rally in North America since 1988 and is unfamiliar to the bulk of the competitors. However, two of the front-running crews contested the event last year, most notably Mitsubishi's "Dani" Solà and last year's victor Marcos Ligato, who is now competing in rival machinery.
Based in the bustling city of Leon, in the State of Guanajuato northwest of Mexico City, it is a notably compact event with an array of demanding, often very fast mountain roads to the east and north of the city. Some of the stages will be the highest in the World Championship, reaching more than 2,700 meters, and large enthusiastic crowds are expected for what promises to be a very historic occasion for Mexico.
One of the drivers who has a shrewd idea of what to expect isn't a Mexican, but former Junior World Rally Champion Dani Solà, who is eager to build on his fine result on the Swedish in his Lancer Evolution.
"Last year we had a big fight for the lead in Mexico, so I know a little bit about the rally", said the Spaniard. "I think it will be a fantastic event and I hope my experience helps, but many of the stages are also different this year".
Finland's Jani Paasonen has never contested the rally before, but after his resounding Production Car World Rally Championship victory in Sweden, the series leader is confident of further success in his Lancer Evolution.
"This rally is completely new to me and I don't know what the stages are like at all", said Jani. "It sounds very interesting anyway and it is always good to learn a new event".
Former Production Car world champion Manfred Stohl will be another newcomer to Mexico, but his formidable worldwide record will make the Austrian Lancer Evolution driver a force to be reckoned with.
"After our bad luck in Sweden, the most important thing for me is to finish and score some points, but I think we have a good chance. With a new rally, you never know what can happen", Stohl said.
There will be plenty of Mitsubishis drivers vying for victory, including the only Mexican registered in the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship, Luis Ricardo Triviño. Japan's Fumio Nutahara makes his first appearance this season, while Spaniard Xavier Pons and Poland's Tomasz Kuchar will undoubtedly be out for maximum points too.
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 Rovanpera in 2002 - and Erwin Richter, the country's reigning title holder. All three will be driving Mitsubishi's Group N machinery.
Regular Mitsubishi campaigner Kristian Sohlberg is also back in action in Mexico, although the Finn is not registered for points in the Production Car World Rally Championship.
"Our first aim is to finish and gain experience, but we want to fight for the win as well, if possible", commented Kristian. "Talking with a few of the other drivers, I think it will be important to get the engine right because of the high altitude, and I understand the roads are quite fast but with some narrow parts with big rocks on the side of the road. I have heard it's quite a nice rally and I am looking forward to it. Hopefully we will have a little freedom to fight, but our priority wil be the experience".