WRC preview: Rally Mexico
Back on gravel
Following a thrilling start to the 2011 World Rally Championship in Sweden earlier this month, the WRC circus heads to Mexico for the second stop of its 13-round, all-action global tour.
The event, held predominantly on slippery gravel stages in baking ambient temperatures and at high altitude, couldn’t be more of a contrast to the snow- and ice-coated forest blasts that formed the backdrop to the WRC-season opener.
Based in the Mexican city of Leon, the country’s shoe-making capital and a host venue for the FIFA World Cup in 1970 and 1986, Rally Guanajuato Mexico joined the WRC for the first time in 2004.
Famed for its compact route - no stage is more than 44 kilometres from the rally’s headquarters - the event begins with a spectacular ceremonial start in the city of Guanajuato, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which traditionally attracts tens of thousands of spectators. As well as hosting the start, Guanajuato will also be the venue for the opening special stage, a 1.5-kilometre test that will run through tunnels and cobbled streets surrounded by high walls.
Despite its status as a gravel event, the rally features a further six asphalt stages, albeit over short distances. In addition to a 1.33-kilometre street stage close to the indoor service park in Leon, the city’s race circuit will host a brace of superspecial stages on the Friday and Saturday evenings. Previously run earlier in the day, the stages will also take place at night to enable more fans to watch the action.
But it’s the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato mountains that will continue to host the bulk of the stage action. The tests are renowned for their high-speed nature but with the surface made up of loose small stones, grip can be at a premium, particularly for those drivers running further up the order and saddled with sweeping a clean line for the competitors behind. To add to the challenge the stages are peppered with potholes and lined with drainage ditches in places, while watersplashes provide an additional hazard.
However, those obstacles are almost trivial when compared to the task created by running at high altitude. With some stages peaking at 2700 metres above sea level, engines struggle to breathe in the thin air and suffer a drop in power of approximately 20 per cent. And with less air in the atmosphere, brakes and engines can overheat as cooling systems are put under a great strain in the high ambient temperatures.
In total, crews will tackle 22 special stages over a competitive distance of 364.87 kilometres. Friday and Saturday follow a similar pattern, with three repeated gravel tests and three asphalt sprints.
Saturday is the longest day of the rally with 158.65 kilometres of stage action awaiting the competitors.
Sunday’s final day features just three tests, including the Guanajuato Power Stage, an 8.28-kilometre course that will be broadcast live on television around the world.
Twenty-five entries have been received for the event, which marks the opening round of the Super 2000 World Rally Championship season.
Who’s going to win?
Having won in Mexico on the last four occasions, Sebastien Loeb has been touted as the favourite for victory in his Citroen Total World Rally Team DS3 WRC. Clearly adept at mastering the challenging high-speed stages, the reigning world champion will also run sixth on the road on day one by virtue of his championship position. That means he is likely to enjoy a cleaner stage surface than some of the drivers running ahead of him on the road.
Mikko Hirvonen starts the event with a seven-point title lead following his victory in Sweden. Opening the road will do Ford’s flying Finn few favours, but he has experience of performing the role and has the advantage of starting the event on the back of a dry-weather test. While Citroen’s pre-event test session in Spain last week was held in damp conditions, the final day of Ford’s test in Portugal was run on dry roads, which could hand Hirvonen an edge.
Ford Abu Dhabi team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala also tested in the dry, but only after his first day of running was interrupted when he suffered a car-wrecking crash. The Finn, who finished third in Sweden, was running in darkness and was nearing the end of the test road when he lost control of his Ford Fiesta RS WRC in muddy conditions and rolled. Fortunately neither he nor co-driver Miikka Anttila suffered any injury, and Latvala has vowed to put the incident behind him.
Mexico was the setting for Loeb’s team-mate Sebastien Ogier’s WRC debut in March 2008. Back then Ogier was contesting the Junior World Rally Championship. But despite his lack of familiarity of world events and the Mexican stages, the Frenchman won the young driver category and bagged a single world championship point. Ogier regards gravel as his preferred surface and will be expected to shine.
Petter Solberg will also be at the wheel of a Citroen DS3 in Mexico. A former winner of the rally, the Norwegian will be looking to build on his strong start to the season in Sweden. Solberg did manage some gravel running during a test in France earlier this week, but still lacks seat time in his new car. The event will mark the first time his eponymous team has been eligible to score manufacturers’ championship points.
Much of the focus will be on Mads Ostberg in Mexico. The hero of Rally Sweden following his second-placed finish, the 23-year-old is a Mexico novice and will head across the Atlantic on the back of contesting the Norwegian championship Rally Finnskog this weekend. While it’s hardly ideal preparation, Ostberg proved in Sweden that he is smart enough to know that building knowledge of the event will take precedence over emulating his achievements on round one.
Joining Ostberg in the M-Sport Stobart Ford squad are Briton Matthew Wilson and Norwegian Henning Solberg, who are regulars in Mexico and are likely to be among the points-paying positions at the finish. Both drivers endured troubled outings in Sweden and will be looking to make amends in Mexico.
There are two drivers making their first appearance in the WRC this season: Federico Villagra and Evgeny Novikov. Villagra, a multiple Argentine champion, will be at the wheel of a Munchi’s Ford World Rally Team Fiesta and has good knowledge of the Mexican stages.
The same cannot be said for Russian Novikov, who begins a six-event campaign in an M-Sport Fiesta and has never competed in Mexico before. Novikov has endured a one-year absence from the WRC but his return is much anticipated by observers who rank him as a future star. The 20-year-old won’t get to sample his Fiesta until shakedown but can count on co-driver Stephane Prevot’s knowledge of the stages.
Completing the Fiesta runners in Mexico are American Ken Block and Dutchman Dennis Kuipers, another Mexico rookie. Kuipers starts the event on a high after scoring manufacturer championship points for the FERM Powertools World Rally Team on its debut. Block drove a World Rally Car in competition for the first time in Mexico last year and impressed. That appearance was in the old-generation Focus WRC and the Monster World Rally Team ace has already commented on his preference for the new Fiesta.
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