The third round of the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship, Corona Rally Mexico, starts on 12 March as the series returns to North America after an absence of more than 15 years. Following a ceremonial start in Guanajuato City on Thursday 11 March,...
The third round of the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship, Corona Rally Mexico, starts on 12 March as the series returns to North America after an absence of more than 15 years. Following a ceremonial start in Guanajuato City on Thursday 11 March, the event will commence on Friday morning when 59 competitors from 25 different nations head to the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato mountains for the opening Leg of the three-day competition.
With FIA regulations preventing teams from testing outside Europe, the event's mountainous gravel stages, run near to the host town of Leon, remain unfamiliar to almost all the FIA WRC competitors (Sebastien Loeb completed the recce in 2003, while Harri Rovanperä contested the entire event in 2002). Presenting crews with a series of smooth, wide, sweeping gravel roads interspersed with more abrasive, twisty sections, the Mexican stages will take crews to altitudes of more than 2,700 metres above sea level making it the highest event in the Championship. As a result, average speeds are expected to be lower than on other smooth gravel surface events, such as New Zealand or Finland.
Corona Rally Mexico will be one of the first events to incorporate a host of new 2004 FIA regulations. Adopting the new five-day format, which allows two days for administration, reconnaissance, shakedown and scrutineering and three for the actual event, the rally will also be the first to feel the full effect of the FIA's new tyre regulations. Crews will have a limited number of tyres available to them (ten times the number of scheduled tyre changes making a total of 60 tyres per car for the entire event), and will have to make their choice for the forthcoming group of stages during a three-minute period before each service. With all teams only having limited data about the nature of the event's stages and climate, such regulations will provide an extra challenge.
Following the ceremonial start on Thursday evening, the rally will start in earnest on Friday 12 March at 1033hrs when crews will contest the highest stage of the entire championship, the 29.06km Ortega - La Esperanza which peaks at 2,737 metres above sea level. Covering a total distance of 1040.67km, the event includes 15 stages, six of which are repeated. The longest stage is the Ibarrilla - Mesa test at 30.47km, which will be used on the final day as SS11 and SS14, while the shortest test is the Derramadero - Comanjilla at 15.42km, which will be used for SS13. A single covered service park in Leon will be used for the entire event.
The Subaru World Rally Team will be entering two cars in the Corona Rally Mexico, driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Mikko Hirvonen (co-driven by Jarmo Lehtinen). In common with the majority of WRC drivers, Petter and Mikko will be drawing on their knowledge of similar smooth, gravel events as they make their Mexican rally debuts next week.
"Sweden feels like a long time ago now, but it was good to get some points there. I think Mexico is going to be a good rally. I've heard that it should be nice weather during the event and I'm told that stages are very wide and fast so it's going to be interesting. I like to see new events being included in the Championship, that's for sure.
"It will be my first visit to Mexico. My engineers have been there to have a look at the condition of the stages and what they've reported back to me has sounded promising. Apparently the stages are very mixed and that's good, especially from a driving point of view. I'm looking forward to getting behind the wheel of the new car too. It felt very good during testing. We've clocked up a lot of miles so now I just want to get out there and get going!"
"Mexico is going to be new for everybody so it's going to be an interesting event. I don't know exactly what the stages are like, but I've seen photos and had reports from the team and it looks good. It will be a fun event to drive I think, and I'm excited about going there. I think the fact that the event will be new for most of the leading drivers will be a small advantage for me - especially compared to Sweden and Monaco. It could mean that more experienced drivers are more likely to make a small mistake, but it won't affect anyone's speed. The speeds will be the same as normal - so that means they'll be fast!
This will be my first gravel event with the team and the first event with the new car and so there are new challenges. The pre-event testing went very well and the feeling of the car was very good, so I'm looking forward to seeing how we go on the gravel in Mexico."
The Car/The Challenge
The latest evolution of the Subaru Impreza World Rally Car, the WRC2004, will make its eagerly anticipated competitive debut on the Corona Rally Mexico. Taking full advantage of the latest FIA technical regulations, and incorporating a host of improvements to areas like the bodyshell, engine, suspension, electronics systems and aerodynamics, the WRC2004 is the latest development of the car that has claimed 38 WRC wins since it burst onto the World Rally scene back in 1993. F
Subaru World Rally Team Principal, David Lapworth:
"Mexico is going to be a revealing event, not only because it's new and people don't know exactly what to expect in terms of stage conditions, tyre wear and altitude, but also because there are lots of new factors on this rally. It'll be the first time an event will run to the new two-plus-three day format and the first time that teams will use flexi-service (Flexi-service will provide an opportunity for a two-car team to service its cars consecutively rather than simultaneously), which will affect the way that we choose tyres. We'll now have to select them an extra 20 minutes ahead of the stages, while the numbers of tyres available to us has also been restricted.
"It's a challenging combination and clearly there's a little bit of a gamble in there. In the old days we would have gone with a whole cross section of tyres so that we could learn as the event went on, but we've had to make a judgement about what we're going to need before we get there. It's helped that we've had some good feedback from the team manager, Paul Howarth, who went to the event last year to get an overall picture, and the principal rally engineer, Pierre Genon, who went back a few weeks ago to get an up-to-date view of the stages.
"For the team, obviously this is the first event with the new car. We're hopeful that it will be faster than the old one and the new regulations have also given us some advantages and freedoms, which will certainly help. I think the event should also suit Petter and Mikko. We have a fairly young driver line up and new events such as this put everyone on a level playing field in terms of experience, so it should be an interesting event. "
Between the Rallies
Since the conclusion of the last WRC event, Petter's been busy! As well as completing a test with the Subaru Impreza WRC2004 in Spain and a promotional tour for a sponsor in China, the Norwegian also found time to visit to the Subaru Rally Team's UK base in Banbury. But it wasn't all work, work, work. The World Champion spent time skiing in Sweden with a friend (training, according to Petter!), as well as going quad biking with son Oliver and snow scootering near his parent's farm in Norway. While back in his hometown of Spydeberg, the Norwegian started work on his latest project - restoring an old rallycross car that he used to compete in when he was younger.
With Finland enjoying a proper winter with lots of snow, Subaru's newest recruit Mikko Hirvonen has been out and about on his Skidoo snowmobile in the last few weeks. He's been putting the machine though its paces in the woods near his house and has been reaching speeds of 160kph, accompanied his co-driver Jarmo, fiancé Karoliina and his cousin. He's also spent time looking after his two nephews, as well as watching some stages of the Finnish Championship and visiting his parents in Kannonkoski, where he worked on some of the historic cars that he keeps there.
This week, Mikko and Jarmo Lehtinen visited the Subaru World Rally Team Headquarters in England to spend two days in the rally team workshop learning all about the mechanical components fitted to their car and, most importantly, how to fix them if something gets damaged on a rally. The pair will arrive in Mexico on Friday 5 March ready to start preparing for the new event.