Three weeks after Rally Sweden, on which Subaru claimed its 45th WRC victory, the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship moves to North America next week for the first gravel round of the series, Corona Rally Mexico. The World Championship's only ...
Three weeks after Rally Sweden, on which Subaru claimed its 45th WRC victory, the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship moves to North America next week for the first gravel round of the series, Corona Rally Mexico.
The World Championship's only American event was new to the series last year, but was such a resounding success that it won a prestigious award at the first attempt. Based in Mexico's leather capital of Leon, the route is one of the highest of the season, peaking at more than 2,700 metres above sea level, and takes in medium to fast gravel roads that are classics in the making.
The stages are quite varied in speed and character, calling for a good all-round compromise set-up. Conditions are normally warm, and as Mexico is the first gravel rally after two highly specialised events, it is an invaluable opportunity to assess the performance of every team and driver on a level playing field.
With none of the stages further than 50km from rally HQ, Rally Mexico features one of the most compact routes of the whole of the 16-event series. Commencing on Thursday 10 March with a ceremonial start in the picturesque Mexican town of Guanajuato, the route will cover eight special stages, 14 in total and 356.17 competitive kilometres. The stages for 2005 remain largely unchanged from 2004, although small modifications have been made, including two brand new stages, which will provide a thrilling finale to the event on Sunday.
The Subaru World Rally Team will be entering two cars on the Corona Rally Mexico driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Chris Atkinson (co-driven by Glenn Macneall). Stéphane Sarrazin and co-driver Denis Giraudet will complete the recce to gain experience of the event.
After suffering some cruel luck in Mexico last year, when a time penalty cost him the chance of a maiden victory (although he battled back to finish fourth), Solberg is hoping to put the record straight with a podium finish this time. His colleague Chris Atkinson has never driven the Mexican event before and is looking to get experience of the route as well as the car, on only his second WRC class outing.
"Although I was a bit unlucky on Rally Mexico last year, it's a great event to take part in and I'm really looking forward to getting back next month. It's a very well run rally, last year the organisers did a very professional job considering it was their first year in the WRC, and I'd say it's one of the best events of the season. Mexico is an interesting place for us to visit too, and as a destination in the WRC it's somewhere I'd like to spend more time; the people, food, scenery and the whole atmosphere make it unique. The stages seem to suit the Subaru Impreza pretty well. We've got a new evolution of the car to launch this time and hopefully, if we have a clean run with no problems, we've got a good chance of winning. Well, that's the plan anyway. It's all about achieving perfection at every stage in the process, from Phil and me, to the guys building the cars and the ones working in service too. It's going to be a tough battle out there I can promise you."
"Sweden was a big learning experience for me but that was the aim, to learn as much as possible. We achieved what we set out to and, although the overall result could have been better, we gained from every mistake we made and that's really important I think. We picked up on lots of little things that we could improve and they all came together, allowing me to improve my stage times.
This will be our second rally in a WRC car and our first on gravel, so we've still got a lot of learn. I hope we'll be more comfortable on this event, due to the extra testing time that we've had in the car since Sweden. In addition, gravel is a surface that I'm much more familiar with. That said, the conditions in Mexico are not that similar to those in Australia. In Mexico it seems there's quite a hard base, which should offer good levels of grip and should be medium to high speed, which suits my driving style. Although the introduction of the new car is pretty exciting, it's not as significant for me as for it is for Petter as I'm still at the stage where everything's new. My main focus is to get to grips with the WRC car and drive it as well as I can."
The Car / The Challenge
The latest evolution of the Subaru Impreza World Rally Car, the Impreza WRC2005, will make its competitive debut at Rally Mexico. The eagerly anticipated new model replaces the Impreza WRC2004, the car that propelled Petter Solberg to five WRC victories in the 2004 season and a sixth on its final event, Rally Sweden, last month. Featuring a wider track, revised styling, composite body panels and a host of engine and suspension enhancements, the Impreza WRC2005 is the latest development of the car that has claimed 44 WRC rally wins over the past 12 seasons.
Subaru World Rally Team Principal, David Lapworth
"One of the main challenges of Rally Mexico is the high altitude of the stages, which can mean that engines have 25 per cent less horsepower. This puts a greater emphasis on the car's set-up, it's tyres and the driver. While plenty of horsepower allows you to recover from small mistakes, less power means the car's not as forgiving if you make them. If you lose speed, it's difficult to get it back and there's a lot of time to be lost or gained through driver error and set-up.
Looking to the stages in Mexico, they're very tricky. Some parts are fast and some slow, while there are lots of rhythm changes and corners, meaning it's not an easy event for a driver to read. On rallies such as Cyprus, drivers can build up a natural rhythm and almost drive without pace notes. One corner tends to lead to another in a fairly predictable way, but in Mexico it's not like that at all. You may have a long tightening corner over a crest that suddenly goes into a hairpin corner. There's no flowing rhythm. Overall, the stages are quite sandy and reminiscent of the northern stages of Rally Portugal. They're also a little like those seen in Sardinia, as they include sections that are quite narrow and twisty.
Last year the event was very well run and showed that new rallies can come into the Championship at a high level. I think that's opened the door for further calendar adaptations to be made in the future and perhaps new countries such as India and China may be included, which is encouraging.
New FIA regulations mean that WRC engines are now used for two events. Mexico is the first of a pair and that should be interesting as Mexico is high altitude, while the next rally, New Zealand, is low altitude. In the past a different mechanical specification and a different compression ratio of engine may have been used for high events such as Mexico and Argentina. But, as they're now run in pairs, you can no longer do that. This is also the first rally where we'll be running the car track to the new maximum width that's been allowed by the 2005 FIA regulations.
Obviously, this is the first event with the new car and you'll always have concerns, but from what we've seen in testing there's no reason for worry. There's no question that the objective for Petter is to win this event, while, for Chris, it's his first gravel rally in a World Rally Car and his first time as a nominated driver in a Manufacturer team, so we're not really talking about results for him. This is all part of his training programme."
Between the Rallies
After attending a test in Sardinia, Petter took some time out to go skiing with his family in Norway. Both he and wife Pernilla are very enthusiastic skiers, but after joining the pair on a couple of runs down the slope, their three-year old son Oliver has yet to make up his mind. "Mummy and daddy like skiing, but Oliver doesn't..." the three-year-old said. Petter joined 400 guests at a prestigious motoring awards ceremony in Geneva on Wednesday 2 March, where he went on stage to give some tips about professional rally driving. He travelled out to Mexico yesterday, in order to complete his training before the start of the event.
Team-mate Chris Atkinson attended the test in Sardinia too, but made the mistake of thinking it would be sunny. It snowed, and then snowed again when he returned to the UK. Back in his native Australia, the sea temperature is up to a scorching 24°C and so his friends keep phoning him up from the beach to check that he's wrapped up warm. Last weekend, the Australian went to watch some members of the SWRT (commercial manager Colin Clark and team manager Paul Howarth included), compete in an enduro-bike race. It was good fun he told us, but he didn't see them take away any silverware...