Ford World Rally Team faces its first gravel encounter of the 2012 season in Mexico next week aiming to extend its winning streak on loose surface rallies.
The squad is unbeaten on such roads since September 2011, following wins on gravel in Australia and Britain last year and the Fiesta RS World Rally Car’s win on snow in Sweden last month.
Rally Mexico (8 – 11 March), round three of the FIA World Rally Championship, highlights the diverse characteristics that make the series the toughest in motorsport for production-based cars.
In contrast to the challenges posed by temperatures that dipped to -15ºC in Sweden, Ford’s drivers and cars face heat approaching 30ºC. As well as making the cockpit uncomfortably hot for drivers, such mercury levels bring stresses on engines and transmissions.
Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila, who led Ford’s podium clean sweep in Sweden, and team-mates Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson have plenty of Mexican experience on which to draw. Latvala has two third places from his five starts, while Solberg won in 2005 and has twice finished second.
The rally is based in the leather manufacturing city of León, 400km north-west of Mexico City, and the country’s fifth largest city. The competitive distance in the mountains north and east of León has increased to over 400km this year but it remains compact, with 35 per cent of the route competitive.
The hard gravel tracks climb to a breathtaking 2737m above sea level, the high point of the WRC season, on hillsides littered with cacti. The thinner air at such altitude means engines ‘run out of breath’ and power levels can drop by up to 20 per cent. To be fully prepared, the team has worked alongside Ford engineers at Dunton Technical Centre in Britain to replicate such conditions in testing.
Rally Mexico is the first of six consecutive gravel rallies, the dominant surface in the series. Latvala prepared with a two-day test near Malaga, in southern Spain, on Monday and Tuesday, during which he covered 488km.
“The first day was as close to Mexican conditions as we have found in Europe at this time of year,” said the 26-year-old Finn. “The surface was the same and the temperature was 24ºC so it was ideal. After a few months away from dry gravel, it took some time to acclimatise again. I drove three unbroken 54km sections which was perfect preparation for the long 51km stage in the final leg.
“The roads in Mexico aren’t the roughest of the season, but they’re not the easiest either. Concrete culverts which cross the roads make it hard for the cars.
“It’s important on any rally to keep the car in the ruts on the clean line, but even more so in Mexico where the altitude means there’s less power than normal. If you make a mistake and slide off line, the time loss is greater because the acceleration isn’t as fast as normal. It also means it’s easy to be in the wrong gear for corners. What might be identified as a fourth gear corner during the recce, could be only third gear in the rally itself,” added Latvala.
Solberg suffered with the ‘flu during his test, which ended yesterday, but the 37-year-old Norwegian was not too concerned. “Nothing stops me driving!” he said. “This test and a day on rough roads in France last week were my first opportunity to drive the Fiesta RS WRC on gravel. I felt comfortable in the car very quickly, the same as when I tested on asphalt and snow for the first time.
“I started with the same set-up as Jari-Matti and made a few small changes to suit my style. I moved quietly forwards and I’m happy with what I achieved.
“Mexico is the first gravel rally of the season and the championship really moves into top gear now. The altitude there affects the way you drive. Because there is less power, it’s necessary to attack a little harder and keep the speed high. I have a good record in Mexico and another big result would complete a strong start to the season,” added Solberg.
* Michelin’s updated Latitude Cross gravel tyre will be used by the Ford drivers and will be available in hard compound only. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the tyres and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Ford World Rally Team’s Fiesta RS WRCs will carry a specially commissioned windscreen sunstrip to celebrate the 50th world rally victory for the Ford / M-Sport partnership, achieved by Latvala and Anttila in Sweden last month.
* Six privately-entered Fiesta RS WRCs supplement the official cars. Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk and Evgeny Novikov / Denis Giraudet are nominated by M-Sport Ford World Rally Team. Monster World Rally Team makes its seasonal debut with cars entered for Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino and Chris Atkinson / Stephane Prévot. Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson are entered by Adapta World Rally Team, with Mexican driver Ricardo Trivino / Alex Haro completing the Fiesta RS WRC line-up.
The route covers familiar territory in the Sierra de Lobos mountains north and east of León. Following Thursday morning’s qualifying, the rally begins with an evening start ceremony in Guanajuato, after which competitors go directly into a street test. The city is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, famed for rich veins of silver and gold discovered centuries ago, and the stage will wind along wall-lined cobbled roads and through floodlit tunnels which once formed mine shafts. Friday’s opening leg is based close to the city, ending with two tests in darkness at León’s race circuit. It contains two new stages, with two more used in the opposite direction to last year. The second day is closer to León and covers a massive 183.80km, including a further two circuit tests. The final leg includes the daunting 54.30km Guanajuatito test, one of the longest of the season, before ending with the Power Stage, which offers bonus points to the fastest three drivers. Competitors tackle 24 stages covering 407.87km in a route of 1174.76km.