provides spur to Ford's Finns
Ford's Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala believe the passion and enthusiasm of Argentina's rally fans can drive them on when this season's FIA World Championship ventures outside Europe for the first time next week. Rally Argentina (23 - 26 April) is one of the year's classic fixtures and both BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers consider the fans' fervour a match to that encountered in their native Finland.
Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen lie second in the drivers' table after three consecutive second place finishes in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car and 28-year-old Hirvonen is a big fan of south America. "Perhaps the crowds are bigger at Rally Finland but they aren't as enthusiastic as the people who line the stages in Argentina. Long sections of stages are full of spectators and even though I'm concentrating hard on the road ahead, it's impossible not to notice them jumping up and down and waving flags. They cheer everyone and everything and it's an incredible atmosphere," he said.
This fifth round of the 12-event series is one of only two outside Europe. While the team's journey from Europe across the Atlantic Ocean is a long one, the ambience encountered in Cordoba province, where the rally is based, makes Rally Argentina a firm favourite with everyone involved.
The event never fails to excite in a country where the tango mirrors the passion and excitement for life. It is surrounded by colour and the atmosphere crackles as more than a million fanatical Latin Americans flock into the vast pampas for a weekend-long fiesta. The scenery is stunning too, ranging from huge expanses of open plain north of the host town of Carlos Paz to the mountains further west where rocky ribbons of road wind through a dramatic moonlike landscape.
The Argentine speed tests vary considerably in their characteristics. Changes to this year's route mean that rather than visiting the three different valleys of the province, the stages to the south around the delightfully named Santa Rosa de la Calamuchita have been axed. In general the roads are soft and sandy, with many river crossings, and frequently become rutted during the second pass. However, Saturday's classic tests in the Traslasierra mountains are narrow and rocky with no margin for error.
Hirvonen, who made history last season by becoming the first driver to score in every round of a WRC season, extended his scoring run to 22 consecutive rallies in Portugal earlier this month. The sequence began in Japan in October 2007. This is his sixth Argentine start, with third in 2007 his best result.
"The roads are fast and extremely narrow in some places, with jumps and river crossings," said Hirvonen. "There is a little bit of everything. The roads are quite soft so although they cut up for the second pass, they aren't abrasive and there shouldn't be any problems with using soft compound tyres. It's autumn there so the weather could be warm and dry or cold and wet. We have to expect anything.
"It's important to take care at the river crossings. During the recce we check the water depth but generally they are tackled flat out. The Focus works well in water splashes but much depends on the angle of entry into the water. It's best if the car is straight when it enters the water and if that's the case then flat out is the only way to go!" he added.
Latvala and co-driver Miikka Anttila have good experience of Argentina, having competed there three times before. Their best result was fourth in 2007. Both have no lasting effects from their huge accident in Portugal two weeks ago when their Focus RS WRC plunged more 150 metres down a hillside, rolling 17 times.
"I stayed in Portugal because on Monday and Tuesday after the rally I was back behind the wheel to give passenger rides to some guests," said Latvala. "I completed 240km and it felt good, I had no fear after the crash. The longer the wait before getting back in a car after a big accident, the worse it is as there is more time to think about the situation. It is always better to drive again as soon as possible.
"I have spoken with Malcolm Wilson (team director) and we're both comfortable that I drive for a finish in Argentina. I would be happy with fourth and if anything else comes along then that would be a bonus. It's important for me and the team that I drive steadily, take a solid result and rebuild my confidence. It's a fantastic rally and the passion of the fans is even greater than in Europe. The stages are a mix of different types of road. Generally they are fast, sandy and bumpy. But the El Condor and Mino Clavero stages are narrow and rocky and it's important to be very precise there," he added.
* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide BP Ford Abu Dhabi with just the one regulation tyre pattern. The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in soft compound only. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Three other Focus RS WRCs will start. Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud and Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are nominated by the Stobart VK M-Sport squad, while Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc are nominated by the Munchi's Ford team.
* M-Sport will develop a Ford Fiesta Super 2000 rally car to meet customer demand. The car will conform to WRC regulations after the Super 2000 formula was last month confirmed as the future of the championship, superseding the current World Rally Cars by the start of the 2011 season. Work on the car will start shortly, with testing planned later in the year. The project will be led by technical director Christian Loriaux and the Fiesta is scheduled to be ready for homologation in January 2010.