Argentina : Ford World Rally Team - Preview
The asphalt of Mediterranean Europe gives way to the gravel of south America as the BP-Ford World Rally Team crosses both the equator and the Atlantic Ocean for Rally Argentina (27 - 30 April) next week. Remarkably for a series
in which 11 of the 16 rallies are gravel, this sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship is only the second traditional loose surface event of the year.
The new Ford Focus RS World Rally Car showed its speed on gravel in Mexico last month when both Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen fought for the lead. With BP-Ford second in the manufacturers' championship and just three points from the lead, and Grönholm second in the drivers' standings, the first of three loose surface events which end the first half of the season provides a perfect opportunity to strengthen their positions.
Rally Argentina is probably the most varied event of the season. Each leg visits different parts of Cordoba province and the roads vary in their surface and characteristics. In the main, they are soft and sandy. They frequently become rutted during a second pass and quickly become muddy in the wet. However, Sunday's notorious El Condor and Giulio Césare tests are among the most demanding of the year, as rocky ribbons of road wind through a spectacular lunar-like landscape.
Tricky river crossings abound (organisers state there are 27 rivers and fords to be crossed!) and stunning scenery across the wide open plains provides superb viewing for the passionate Latin American fans who flock into the speed tests in massive numbers. They generate a crackling atmosphere as impromptu roadside fiestas spring up alongside the stages and despite the long journey, the special ambience that surrounds the event is enjoyed by all in the BP-Ford team.
Thirty-eight-year-old Grönholm has a good record in Argentina. The Finn won in 2003 and has twice finished second from his seven previous starts. "This is a rally that I know well," he said. "We have three gravel rallies in succession now and it is important that we do well in all of them. I need to close the gap on Sebastien Loeb
in the drivers' championship and I'm looking at the gravel events to do that. The Focus RS showed in Mexico that it is fast on the loose and I'm sure we will be quick in Argentina also.
"It's not a particularly difficult rally. The stages are not so technical and quite straight forward but each leg is different. The roads down near Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, which we drive on the second day, are the fastest and my favourites - they seem to suit me.
"One thing that I am unsure about is the river crossings. I don't know how fast I can go into them in a Focus so I will have to be cautious initially. Much of the under bonnet cooling package is located at the front so it will be important not to enter the water too fast and damage that. It seems silly to talk about water damaging a car but when you cross a river at speed, the force of the water really can cause problems and we must avoid that," he added.
Hirvonen has only competed here twice, his best result coming in 2004 when he was fourth. The 25-year-old Finn is enthusiastic about his chances. "In Mexico the car was going very well before I went off the road and I can't wait to see if I can find a similar speed in Argentina," he said. "These next three rallies are the most important part of the first half of the season for me. The points I scored on the last rally in Corsica were good for my confidence but also moved me up the championship standings and mean I have a good start position for the first leg in Argentina.
"The Focus RS handled perfectly in Mexico and I think high-speed gravel events bring the best out of the car. Argentina has plenty of fast sections with big jumps but also slower roads where my driving will have to be more precise. The rally has a bit of everything. Sunday's final day is the most fascinating in the whole championship. The landscape is how I would imagine the moon to be, with solid rock everywhere and a narrow road down the middle," he added.
The rally follows a similar format to 2005, visiting the three valleys of Cordoba province, each offering stages of differing character and landscape. However, the rally base has moved from the Pro-Racing motorsport complex near Villa Carlos Paz to Córdoba's Feriar exhibition halls. The Pro-Racing super special has been switched to Córdoba's soccer stadium, opposite Feriar, which will open the action on Thursday evening and bring it to a close on Sunday lunchtime.
The first full day is the longest, covering 159.73km in the Punilla Valley, north of Carlos Paz. It includes two tests unused since 2003 and two more used in the opposite direction to 2005. The second day is a mix of the same tests and faster roads in the Calamuchita valley to the south. The final leg covers just 41.30km and initially heads south-west to the Traslasierra mountains for the rocky El Condor and Giulio Césare stages, two of the most famous and toughest in the championship, which peak at 2195 metres. Drivers face 22 stages covering 351.44km in a route of 1474.82km.
Press release Ford World Rally Team