Argentina : Ford World Rally Team - Preview
FIA World Rally Championship leader BP-Ford journeys to Argentina next week for an event that generates a special ambience unmatched anywhere else during the season. Rally Argentina is South America's only round in the 16-event
series and while the passionate Latin American fans generate a party mood along the route, drivers face probably the most varied roads of the year.
The defending champion makes the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the land of the tango with an eight-point lead in the manufacturers' standings for its Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen lie second in the drivers' championship, just a single point from the lead, while team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are third.
This sixth round of the 16-rally series never fails to excite. It is surrounded by colour and the atmosphere crackles as an estimated 1.4 million spectators launch a weekend-long fiesta out in the pampas. The scenery is stunning, too, ranging from vast expanses of open plains north of the host town of Villa Carlos Paz to the mountains west of the town where rocky ribbons of road wind through a dramatic moon-like landscape. Add in an opening speed test at Buenos Aires' iconic River Plate soccer stadium and the recipe is there for a south American sizzler.
The Argentine speed tests differ hugely in their characteristics as each leg visits different parts of Cordoba province. In general the gravel roads are soft and sandy.
They frequently become rutted during the second pass and turn muddy in the wet. In contrast Sunday morning's El Condor and Giulio Césare mountain tests are narrow and rocky with no margin for error.
Thirty-nine-year-old Grönholm won here in 2003 and has twice finished second in his eight starts. After losing the championship lead to Sebastien Loeb
on the previous round in Portugal, Grönholm knows the need to strike back quickly. "I want to get back in front of Loeb in the championship," he said. "I had a good test in Sardinia last week and hopefully we have found a few small things which will increase performance in Argentina.
"He is now championship leader and so he must open the road. That gives me a little advantage because he must sweep the road clean but the difference between first and second in the start order won't be huge. The different characteristics of the stages require a different approach but I have done this rally so many times that it doesn't bother me. The stages near Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, which we drive on Saturday afternoon, are the best. They are fast and flowing," he added.
River crossings are plentiful, with more than 25 to be negotiated. "They can be awkward. It's easy to enter the water too fast and damage the cooling package at the front of the engine. When you cross a river at speed the force of the water can cause problems but last year we didn't have any difficulties. It's important to note the depth during the recce and adjust your speed accordingly," said the Finn.
Hirvonen's three starts have yielded a best result of fourth in 2004 and the 26-year-old Finn is a big fan of the rally. "It's not as technical as the last round in Portugal but there's a greater variety of roads – wide sections, narrow tracks, sandy surfaces, rocky area, big jumps, water crossings. It's not difficult to manage the changing nature of the stages but it does require some thought," he said.
"There's a tremendous atmosphere on the stages. You can sense the huge crowds and the side of the roads are lined with people. On the final day fans are perched high on the rocks that overlook the track. It's an amazing landscape and it's remarkable how they managed to make a road up there.
"My test this week went well and we found some small improvements that made the car more precise to drive. I'm third in the championship and still quite close to Seb and Marcus. I want to stay as close to them in the battle at the top for as long as possible," he added.
Ford World Rally Team