Corona Rally Mexico 2006: Ford World Rally Team - Preview
The unbeaten BP-Ford World Rally Team will take its lead in the FIA World Rally Championship to Mexico next week as the series moves for the first time onto the gravel roads which are the dominant surface of the season.
After victories for BP-Ford on the two most specialised rounds of the series, the Rally Mexico (2 - 5 March) is the first of 11 gravel events in the 16-round series and will offer the best guideline so far for the year ahead.
The team made the perfect start to 2006 when Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen's Focus RS World Rally Car won on both the wintry asphalt roads in Monte Carlo and the snow and ice-covered tracks of Sweden. The Swedish victory was Ford's 50th world rally success and Grönholm will go to North America intent on becoming the first driver to claim three consecutive wins at the start of a season. Ford holds a two point lead in the manufacturers' standings while the Finns have a four point advantage in the drivers' series.
Both Grönholm and Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen have good records on a rally which has made a strong impression in only two years in the championship. Grönholm scored points on both previous outings, with a best result of second last year, while Hirvonen finished fifth on his only start in 2004.
The Mexican speed tests offer mainly fast, flowing roads on both hard-packed gravel and a softer, sandier surface. It is the highest rally in the series, the undulating special stages climbing to more than 2700 metres on hillsides awash with cacti and water crossings. The altitude takes its toll on cars, the thinner air meaning engines 'run out of breath' and lose up to 30 percent of their power.
The roads are smooth and tyre wear is not excessive. However, the competitive distance between tyre changing regularly exceeds 70km, one of the longest in the series. Therefore the durability of the BFGoodrich rubber fitted to the Focus RS cars, as well as the performance, will be important.
As championship leader, 38-year-old Grönholm will be first to start the stages on Friday's opening leg. Hot weather and little recent rain mean the tracks could be covered in slippery loose gravel, which would hinder the early starters. "I don't remember how much of a difficulty it has been in previous years," said Grönholm. "But Sebastien Loeb
, who is our closest rival in the championship, starts only one car behind us so he won't have much of an advantage if there is loose gravel. But Petter Solberg could benefit a lot because he will start well down the order. It will only affect us for three stages on Friday morning because the afternoon stages are repeats."
"Mexico is quite a normal gravel rally. It's not particularly technical but has a good combination of fast and slower sections. The stages are held on a good surface, which is quite smooth, but cars tend to pick up quite a bit of damage and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's a combination of high speeds and stones coming through the surface during the second run over roads."
"Testing has gone well and I'm confident the car will be as competitive on gravel as it has been on asphalt and snow. I have a few small things to sort out with the brakes, but that's because I left-foot brake a lot," added Grönholm, who is recovering from 'flu which sidelined him during a ski-ing holiday in northern Finland.
Hirvonen's two-day gravel test this week in Spain left the Finn full of confidence for Mexico. "The feeling with the Focus was very good and provided a huge boost ahead of Mexico. In fact, I was quite surprised just how good it felt considering this was my first test in the car on smooth gravel. Before this week I had only driven the Focus on rough gravel and that was a reliability test. I developed a good base setting from which I can work for all the gravel events. I will work with the engineers to concentrate on the small details and to fine-tune the settings," he said.
"Mexico has a little of everything. It's surprisingly fast and I remember driving flat out for long sections. The surface can be abrasive and as the temperatures will be quite high, I think it could be hard for tyres, but I 'm sure that BFGoodrich will be well prepared. It's my first gravel rally since Japan last year but I've competed in Sweden and tested in both France and Spain on the loose so I don't see any problems in returning to the surface in competition," added 25-year-old Hirvonen.
Press Release Ford World Rally Team