Three weeks after leaving the snow-bound forests of Sweden, the FIA World Rally Championship heads to the warmer and sunnier conditions of central Mexico for the next event. Rally Mexico starts on Thursday 2 March and is based in the city of Leon.
Three weeks after leaving the snow-bound forests of Sweden, the FIA World Rally Championship heads to the warmer and sunnier conditions of central Mexico for the next event. Rally Mexico starts on Thursday 2 March and is based in the city of Leon. The World Championship's only round on the North American continent will be the third round of the 16-event series.
After two specialist asphalt and snow events, Mexico brings a return to gravel roads and is often regarded as the first 'proper' rally of the year. The medium to high speed gravel roads climb up the side of spectacular valleys, with some peaking at over 2,700 metres above sea level. Now in its third year of inclusion in the WRC calendar, the route takes crews to the highest stages of the season.
The hard-packed roads vary in character and call for a versatile car set-up that gives drivers sure-footed handling in all conditions. The high altitude brings additional challenges for engineers as the thin air saps power from engines. As a result, average speeds are far lower than on rallies run over similar terrain.
With no stages further than 50km away from the single rally HQ in Leon, the route is one of the most compact in the championship. Commencing on Thursday 2 March with a ceremonial start in the World Heritage town of Guanajuato, the route will cover 17 special stages and 359.54 competitive kilometres. The stages remain largely unchanged from 2005, but this year the route includes a Superspecial stage, constructed at the nearby Puebla motor racing circuit.
Kronos Total Citroen
For the North American round of the championship, the Kronos Total Citroen World Rally Team, currently second in the Manufacturers' standings, enters two 2006 Xsara WRCs which will be driven by Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Xavier Pons/Carlos Del Barrio. For the World Champion car, Citroen Sport has homologated on the 1st of March a new front bumper in the aim of improving the engine's cooling system but also its reliability and its longevity. Thanks to his Spanish supports, who were overwhelmed by his Monaco and Swedish performance, reigning Junior World Champion Dani Sordo rents a 2005 Xsara WRC to Kronos Racing which he enters under his own name. As usual he benefits from the experience of c o-driver Marc Marti.
Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena: At these altitudes, where people would ski in Europe, even turbocharged engines gasp for breath in the rarefied air, a consideration which calls for specific mapping . "The obvious loss of power is surprising at the beginning" explains Sebastien Loeb . "You feel it even more because you tend to over think about it-- Then you get used to it and you forget. In any case, we are all faced to the same problem--" "It's true that we haven't been really lucky here so far! However it is quite high in my personal rankings. The stages are not narrow and I like this as it gives you the choice of driving line. The stages are all different, sometimes very fast and sometimes very technical. The weather is usually very nice, the landscape beautiful and people are warm and friendly. The main concern remains with the stones which have caused some much damage in the last two editions. Since two years, we experienced such problems already at the shakedown and we took part in the ceremonial start in Guanajuato by foot two years in a row. I also retired in 2004 after the sump broke on an impact on one of those stones. The solution? You need to remain extremely focused during the recce to locate a maximum of them."
Xavier Pons/Carlos Del Barrio: "Mexico is a wonderful country! And here we speak Spanish; it's a bit like home. It is right that I have competed here in 2004 and 2005. Really, it's a great event but also where it's easy to make a mistake. The rally route changes all the time with some fast and some slow sections. What is surprising at the start is the loss of power due to the high altitudes--" "The rally route is demanding and most of the competitive kilometres are covered during the first two legs. Generally, I like the Mexican tests-- In fact I like all the World's stages (laugh) but liking them is one thing and performing the best way possible in them is another-- To be a bit more serious, Mexico rally is a fantastic event."
The World Rally Cars lose about one percent engine power per 100 metres altitude difference. The vicinity of Leon (approximately 3500 kilometres north of Mexico City) lies at about 2.500 metres sea level, which means ¾ of the usual engine power. Even though the Sweden Rally was almost a home rally for Henning Solberg, the Norwegian is yet looking forward to Mexico. Having already won one WRC-point, Manfred Stohl's OMV teammate is confident that he will also be able to score at the premiere in Mexico. Prior to the departure to Mexico, gravel tests had been scheduled for last weekend in France (close to the Bozian Racing headquarters in Lyon). On a length of 120 kilometres, OMV drivers Stohl and Solberg were able to get acquainted with the gravel performance of the Peugeot. In the manufacturer's ranking the OMV Peugeot Norway World Rally Team lies in excellent third place with 10 points. The goal is to defend this place in Mexico since only Manfred Stohl will be competing in the following two WRC-runs, which means that the results will only be valid for the driver's ranking but not for the manufacturer's WRC.
Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor: "It will be decisive which team will be best able to adapt to these circumstances and get the best possible performance out of the car. But I'm sure that Bozian Racing has prepared the Peugeot 307 WRC perfectly and we will be able to compete with the best", explains OMV driver Manfred Stohl. The Austrian had already competed in Mexico two years ago -- back then in the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship. Stohl: "We already had problems on the first day and then had to retire on leg two. Even though I've almost forgotten this incident I still would like to wipe out this mistake. "The OMV Team is well aware that they will have to put their foot down from kilometre one. Stohl: "My two special stage best times in Monte Carlo give me confidence -- I want to compete right at the top." Re testing: "It was exceptional. We've really got a grip on the Peugeot now. And we are much further than we were at this point last year. The main focus was on shocks-testing. I'm sure we were very successful."
Henning Solberg/Cato Menkerud: "We already had a pretty good grip on the car in Sweden. Shortly thereafter we won the Rally Norway where we gained further experience. I'm really looking forward to this rally despite having never yet competed in Mexico. Especially since gravel is among my favourite surfaces." Re testing: "Everything is highly professional. I can focus solely on driving which makes each kilometre almost count double. The Peugeot performs admirably on gravel, which will be a great advantage 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 is the first of 11 gravel events in the 16-round series and will offer the best guideline so far for the year ahead. 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.
Marcus Gronholm/Timo Rautiainen: 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.
Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen: 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.
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford
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. Britain's youngest-ever full-time professional rally driver, 19-year-old Cumbrian Matthew Wilson, will take on the third round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Mexico next week. The Ford driver arrives in Leon, north of Mexico City, on a high, after scoring his first WRC point for the Stobart VK M-Sport team on the previous round in Sweden, early last month. Like the first two rounds of the championship, Rally Mexico will be completely new for Matthew. And this time he won't have a more experienced team-mate to talk tactics with -- as Luis Perez-Companc has never contested the rally before either. Both drivers will set out with the aim of furthering the team's points tally in the FIA Manufacturers' Championship, particularly as the Stobart VK M-Sport arrive in central America just one point behind Subaru World Rally Team.
Matthew Wilson/Michael Orr: "I said from the start of this season that the first two rallies were always going to be quite tough for me; I didn't know too much about Monte Carlo and its ever-changing grip levels and I didn't know much more about Sweden and driving on snow. But, I do know a bit about gravel. The 2005 Focus is just an amazing car to drive on any surface -- but on gravel, it's absolutely fantastic. I did a two-day test before this event, with both my rally engineer and Roman Kresta (2005 Ford Team RS driver). Both of them were fantastic, so much help. I worked on all sorts of settings for the car through the two days, and then on each afternoon, Roman got in the car with me and helped me with my driving. We were doing the kind of stuff you just can't do on a rally -- things like going through corners on totally different lines to see which was the quickest, it was really interesting and tremendously helpful to be able to compare the data."
Luis Perez-Companc/Jose Maria Volta: "I'm really looking forward to getting back in the car after Sweden. My first snow rally was really tough. I had a small accident, which didn't help, but apart from that it was a really enjoyable event. I've never contested Rally Mexico before, either, but at least I've driven on gravel plenty of times -- so I know a bit more about what to expect. It's such an experience driving the Focus on these rallies."
The Subaru World Rally Team will enter two cars in Rally Mexico driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Chris Atkinson (co-driven by Glenn Macneall). Petter won Rally Mexico in 2005 by a margin of 34.5 seconds, having led the event from start to finish. The Norwegian will be looking to repeat the success and score his first points of the 2006 season. This year's event will be Chris' second Rally Mexico.
Petter Solberg/Phil Mills: Well, we'll try again in Mexico! We'll try very hard to get some points by finishing on the podium, but winning is the goal. I hope everything will be in good shape -- the car, the tyres and me. We've got a good starting position and I hope we can go well on all three days. The team is very confident and we had a good test in Sardinia. There's so much more to come from us."
Chris Atkinson/Glen MacNeall: It's exciting to get back to Mexico where we made our World Rally Championship gravel debut. We had a good run last year where we set some encouraging split times and matched the pace of other more experienced drivers. Based on this performance and the fact we know the event now we're looking for a good result, hopefully top five. After Sweden I did some testing with the new car. We're still learning about the Impreza WRC2006, but things are definitely going in the right direction."
Red Bull-Skoda Team
The Red Bull-Skoda team are not competing in Mexico.