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MEXICO - The extremes of climate and terrain that Ford's new Fiesta RS World Rally Car must master in its quest for FIA World Rally Championship success will be highlighted at Rally Mexico (March 3 - 6).
Three weeks after a podium clean sweep on its debut in the harsh Swedish winter, the car journeys to North America for the second round in conditions that could hardly be more different.
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila excelled in Scandinavia to claim first and third respectively. However, the contrasts between competing in Sweden and Mexico emphasise the characteristics that make the WRC the toughest competition in motorsport for production-based cars.
Gone are the challenges posed by temperatures which dipped to almost -30ºC. They will be replaced by figures forecast to reach 32ºC in the rally base of León, 400km north-west of Mexico City, in the build-up to Friday's start. The higher-than-average mercury level will bring new demands, imposing stresses on engines and transmissions, as well as on drivers and co-drivers, who will endure higher temperatures in the cockpit.
The relatively smooth icebound roads will be replaced by hard-packed gravel tracks, which can become rough, so cars must absorb greater punishment.
This is the first of seven consecutive dirt rounds and is also the highest event in the 13-round season. The speed tests north and east of the city climb to a breathtaking 2,737m above sea level on hillsides awash with cacti.
Altitude brings its own challenges, thinner air meaning engines 'run out of breath' and power levels fall by about 20 per cent. To be fully prepared for such conditions, the team tested a Fiesta RS WRC for two days at altitudes encountered in Mexico in the Environmental Testing Laboratory at Ford's Dunton Technical Centre in Britain. It also replicated predicted power levels during testing in Portugal last week to help the drivers gauge different braking points.
Hirvonen has five Mexico starts to his name, his best result being third in 2007. As championship leader, the 30-year-old Finn will be first in the start order for the opening leg. But he is happy to take on the role of sweeping loose gravel from the road to create a clearer line for his rivals behind.
"Leading the championship can have its disadvantages and one of those is to start first on the road for the opening gravel rally of the year," he said. "My rivals have better road positions so the first leg will be tough, but I'll still try to find a way to challenge for victory again. This is the third consecutive Rally Mexico that I've been in this position, so I'm used to it. I'm not underestimating the difficulties, but even if I had the option, I wouldn't swap my win in Sweden for a better seeding in Mexico.
"A win on the car's debut was the perfect start for myself and the team, but it means nothing if we don't build upon that in Mexico. It's not an easy rally because the altitude affects the performance of the cars. We've not enjoyed the best results there in recent years, but I believe the new car will give us a better chance to fight for a win. The Fiesta RS WRC uses a six-speed gearbox and that should help us make the most of the power that is available," he added.
Latvala's best result from his four starts in Mexico was third in 2008, and the 25-year-old Finn feels well-prepared for the 2011 event.
"The final day of my pre-event test in Portugal was dry, which is how Mexico will be," he said. "It was ideal, and the team was able to modify the engine to reflect the power levels we can expect at altitude. I've opted for a less aggressive set-up and I'm confident the car will be fully competitive there. Conditions will be different from the first round and everyone will look at the times to see how the new cars perform on gravel for the first time.
"It's one of the rallies which is slippery for the first few drivers because of the loose stones. I'm third in the order for the first day, which is reasonable. I expect the guys behind to be strong as the roads become cleaner. The number of starters is smaller than usual, which might help us. The tracks should stay quite clean for the second pass, because there aren't many local drivers down the order. They take different lines in smaller cars and often mess up the clean roads again," added Latvala.
* The first dirt rally of the season marks the first opportunity for the Ford Abu Dhabi drivers to sample Michelin's gravel tyres in competition. The Michelin Latitude Cross rubber was the first of the French company's range of WRC tyres to be developed and tested at the end of summer 2010. They will be available in hard compound only. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* After Mexico, Ford Abu Dhabi will test for four days on gravel in preparation for Rally de Portugal. Hirvonen will drive for the opening two days, with Latvala taking the wheel for the final two days.
The route is virtually identical to last year, covering familiar roads in the Sierra de Lobos mountains north and east of León. Aside from minor revisions to two Sunday stages, the major change is the introduction of a short test through the streets of Guanajuato immediately after Thursday's start ceremony. The town is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, famed for rich veins of silver and gold discovered centuries ago, and the stage will wind along wall-lined cobbled roads and through floodlit tunnels which once formed mine shafts.
Friday and Saturday's legs again include a short street stage next to the service park at León Poliforum midway through the day. Both also close with two tests at the town's race circuit, which will be run in darkness for the first time. The competition ends with an 8.28km Power Stage, broadcast live on television and offering bonus points to the fastest drivers. Competitors tackle 22 stages covering 364.87km in a route of 1031.30km.