Hirvonen aiming to build on Swedish success
Ford going for the double in Mexico
Two hundred years after Mexico’s native Indians began their bloody fight for independence against Spanish rule in Guanajuato, BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team next week takes up the call to arms in the mountains near the city for a battle of a different kind.
The team journeys to North America for Rally Mexico (4 - 7 March), the second round of the FIA World Rally Championship, intent on extending its lead in both the manufacturers’ and drivers’ standings.
Victory for Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and third for team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila in Sweden earlier this month means the team heads both championships with the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car.
Hirvonen’s win moved Ford level at the top of the WRC’s all-time standings with 74 victories and the 29-year-old Finn celebrates an anniversary of his own in Mexico – his 100th WRC start.
The rally, which returns to the series after a year’s absence, is a key part of Guanajuato state’s bicentennial celebrations. It is based in the large city of León in the centre of the country, 400km north-west of Mexico City. The compact route comprises speed tests in the mountains to the north and east and most climb above 2000m on hillsides awash with cacti and water crossings, making this the highest round of the season. The altitude takes its toll on cars as the thinner air means engines ’run out of breath’ and can lose up to 30 percent of their usual power.
The road surface is essentially hard-packed gravel, although some parts are sandier and can become rough during the second pass. Most special stages are fast and flowing, although there are slower, more technically demanding sections as well. There are also tests at two short spectator-friendly venues, one in León city itself, immediately next to the single service park at the Poliforum.
Hirvonen has four Mexico starts to his name, third in 2007 being his best result. The 29-year-old Finn will be first in the start order during the opening leg following his Swedish success, but is happy to carry the role of creating a clear driving line for his rivals on the gravel tracks.
"Leading the championship can have its disadvantages, and I now run first on the road for the opening gravel rally of the season. My rivals have better road positions than me so it will be difficult, but I’ll still try to find a way to challenge for the win. I’m not underestimating the difficulties, but I wouldn’t swap my win in Sweden for a better start seeding," he said.
"Sweden was the perfect start to the championship for both me and the team. It’s important that we build on that in Mexico and continue to take the brave decisions that paid off in the opening round. The first gravel rally of the season is always an interesting one because, with the majority of the championship on that surface, it gives pointers as to how the season may play out," added Hirvonen, who flies to León today (Friday) to acclimatise to the high altitude and the eight-hour time difference between his home country and Mexico.
This will be the fourth Rally Mexico start for Latvala, who finished third in 2008, and a podium in Sweden has left the 24-year-old feeling calm about the challenge ahead.
"I’ve not enjoyed as good a start to a season for five years and it’s a completely different sensation to go to Mexico feeling relaxed and under less pressure," he said. "I tested for two days in Spain this week but the weather was more suited to Rally GB than a hot event like Rally Mexico. It rained so the roads were muddy and the morning temperature was -2ºC. At least I managed to find a good feeling with gravel tyres again and I tried a few small changes with the car.
"Mexico’s high altitude affects the engine’s performance and because there is less power, the car takes longer to reach top speed. It’s important to keep the correct line through corners, particularly in uphill sections, because a mistake costs more time than usual while the engine regains its power. The roads are generally wide and fast but there are twisty sections during Saturday’s stages. They’re not rough, but there are many small river crossings where the water runs down from the mountains that have a concrete base. When you hit them at speed they can damage the car," added Latvala.
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