Gravel roads, new tyres and mountain peaks as SWRT goes West
The Subaru World Rally Team will travel west to the Americas for the third event of the season, the Corona Rally Mexico, after its late inclusion in this year's WRC calendar. The first traditional gravel rally
of the year is also the first long-haul event, and the only time the crews will visit the North American continent.
Based in the city of Leon in the Guanajuato region of Mexico's central highlands, the event promises very different conditions to any seen so far this year in either Monte Carlo or Sweden. On the event where the Impreza WRC2007 was launched last year, crews will compete for the first time on Pirelli's new Scorpion gravel championship control tyre, available in only one compound and tread pattern. It will be the third different tyre design crews have used in the first three events of the year.
Crews are banned from cutting the tread of their tyres this year, which on gravel typically meant opening up the tread pattern to maximise the tyre's ability to cut through the loose surface. This will mean road position is crucial as those further down the order will benefit from road cleaning, meaning a smoothing of the loose surface that will afford the standard tread better traction.
The region's hard-packed gravel roads are some of the highest of the year. Generally fast, they are tricky as they don't naturally flow through the mountainous terrain. The challenging combination of high and slow-speed sections make it difficult for crews to establish a rhythm along the sometimes narrow and technical tests. Those who are smoothest will improve the life and therefore grip from their tyres on the abrasive surface where tyre wear is very high.
These conditions traditionally suit Subaru very well, and Petter Solberg and Phil Mills won here in 2005 and established an early lead last year before being forced into retirement. Chris Atkinson also held second position last year before running into difficulty and finishing fifth.
The route is much the same as last year with only minor additions to sections of the Ortega and El Cubilete speed tests. Rally Mexico is the most compact route in the WRC, and this year is even more so than last with a total distance of just 830 kilometres. The 354 competitive kilometres of gravel roads traverse the mountains of the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato to the east of Leon, reaching a peak altitude of just over 2700 metres where the oxygen is thin and engines struggle to develop power.
The event opens with a ceremonial start on Thursday night in front of the Alhondiga de Granaditas, an historic grain storage building which now serves as a regional museum. A change from the first two events, the weather forecast is dry and windy, with temperatures reaching 25 degrees Celsius. Each day is concluded by a 2.21km spectator stage, located 15km south-west of Leon, which will be run a total of five times over the three days to bring the action from the mountains to the local fans.
The Subaru World Rally Team have entered two Impreza WRC2007s for Rally Mexico. Petter Solberg / Phil Mills will drive car number five and Chris Atkinson / Stephane Prevot will be in car number six. Solberg and Mills have finished on the podium twice in the last three years. Atkinson finished fifth last year, his best result in Mexico, but this will be his first running of the event alongside Prevot.
David Richards, Subaru World Rally Team Principal: "Mexico is a totally different challenge to that we have seen so far this year. It's an event on which Subaru have a good record, and it really demonstrates the strength of our engine. Petter and Chris ran strongly on this event last year and, using the same car that we debuted then, I expect our performance to put us firmly towards the top of the timesheets."
Paul Howarth, Subaru World Rally Team operations director: "We've gone well in Mexico in the past and the conditions suit both drivers and our cars. Recent tests with Pirelli's new Scorpion tyre have been positive, but have shown that tyre wear will be a real factor in what we consider to be an endurance event. The stages will be a lot cleaner for the second passes and road position is important. You will lose time starting first on the road as for those further back there will be more grip as the surface becomes cleaner. The roads do get very abrasive though as the loose surface is swept away, and as grip increases, the tyres have to really work hard."
Petter Solberg: "We go to Mexico knowing that we have won here in the past, but we don't approach it any differently to Monte or Sweden. We made some good steps forward in the test last week, so we go to Mexico with a good setup. We'll drive our own rally, push as hard as we can and see what happens. I hope we will be strong again here as it's good for everyone if we can be fighting at the front."
Chris Atkinson: "It's a difficult rally with the altitude and the conditions, but we approach it with the same strategy as we have started this year with. Last year we had a good result and good pace on the first day, so if we can maintain consistency throughout the event then I hope we can get a good finish. We have a strong engine in the car that seems to perform well at altitude which I think is one of the reasons we go well here. I like the feeling of the rally as it's good to have such a variation in speed and conditions that keeps you entertained! Visually it's appealing and very different, and that's what rallying is all about."
Between the rallies
After the Swedish Rally both Impreza WRC2007s travelled straight to Spain for a four day gravel test ahead of Rally Mexico. The duo of Solberg and Mills completed two and a half days, and the pairing of Atkinson and Prevot completed one and a half days to develop a setup for Mexico and the remaining gravel rallies and to test Pirelli's new gravel tyre. The team also tested suspension and damper components in what was the final test for the WRC2007 as the emphasis shifts to the Impreza WRC2008.