Ford World Rally Team faces the longest FIA World Rally Championship encounter for almost 10 years in South America next week. More than 500km of rough road competition lie in wait at Rally Argentina (26 – 29 April), making this fifth round of the season the longest since Kenya’s legendary Safari Rally in 2002.
The emphasis will be on endurance with each of the three legs including a marathon speed test. Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson and team-mates Dani Sordo and Carlos del Barrio face two passes over a 52km special stage in the first leg. The going becomes even tougher in the final day with a 65.74km test across the Los Gigantes mountains, the longest of the season.
The increased distance brings the return of classic roads that will be new to the current generation of WRC drivers, having not been used since 1994.
More than a million people line the roadsides in Cordoba province, nearly 700km north-west of Buenos Aires. The event never fails to excite in a country where the tango mirrors the passion for life, and the atmosphere crackles alongside the gravel roads in the pampas as one of Argentina’s biggest fiesta occasions bursts into life.
The scenery is stunning, too, as each leg visits a different valley. Huge expanses of open plain in the Punilla Valley, north of the rally base in Carlos Paz, contrast with the gentle countryside to the south around the delightfully-named Santa Rosa de Calamuchita. Then the final day climbs into the Traslasierra mountains where rocky ribbons of road wind through a dramatic moonlike landscape.
The roads are predominantly soft and sandy during the opening two days, with plenty of river crossings, but the surface becomes more abrasive during the final leg west of Carlos Paz.
Solberg has delivered consistently strong results at the wheel of a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car during the opening four rounds which have carried him into second into the drivers’ standings, just four points from the lead.
“I enjoy this rally but I think it could be quite different this year,” said Solberg, for whom this will be his 180th WRC start. “It’s 120km longer than in 2011 and that may alter the way in which some drivers approach it. It’s not a sprint, it’s an endurance rally. There’s no need to get too excited too early and attack from the start, so I can wait a little, judge the pace and push later on when I need to.
“It’s a difficult rally. The final day’s stages are at high altitude and conditions can be bad up there. Fog and even ice are not unusual. But I love it, partly because of the atmosphere. The stages are packed with people and even the liaison sections on the public roads have huge crowds. They’re so enthusiastic,” added 37-year-old Solberg, who has three podiums to his name here.
Sordo steps into the Ford squad for a one-off outing to replace the injured Jari-Matti Latvala. His experience of a Fiesta RS WRC is limited to a day’s testing on Wednesday close to the team’s Dovenby Hall base in Britain. Sordo finished second last year, his best result from five starts, and as a Spaniard, the 28-year-old will be a favourite of the Latin American fans.
“I’m excited to be driving for Ford in Argentina because when you are a rally driver all you want to do is compete,” said Sordo. “Although I’ve not had a lot of time behind the wheel of the Fiesta RS WRC, I quickly felt comfortable in the car during testing. The engineers provided a base set-up that worked for me and I’ll approach practice in Argentina with those settings.
“It’s like a home event for me because I speak the same language and in previous years the support from the fans was fantastic. This is only a one-off drive for Ford, but I want to do the best for the team and prove they made the right decision in selecting me. I’m not setting any targets, apart from a points finish, and I’ll judge my pace by how I feel once the rally gets under way,” he added.