ARGENTINA - Ford's Fiesta RS World Rally Car has a VIP invitation to one of Argentina's biggest fiesta occasions next weekend. More than a million Latin Americans will flock into the pampas to watch Rally Argentina (26 - 29 May), and Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team's challenger for the 2011 FIA World Rally Championship will be one of the star guests at the party.
The rally is traditionally one of the classic gravel fixtures in the championship, but the performance of the Fiesta RS WRC on asphalt will play a key part in this season's encounter. After a year's absence, the event returns to the series as a mixed surface event, offering the first opportunity for the car to show its sealed surface abilities.
The opening five rounds of this year's championship were held on either gravel or snow. While Rally Argentina retains its famous dirt speed tests in Cordoba province, nearly 700 km north-west of Buenos Aires, almost a fifth of the event's competitive distance is asphalt.
To add an extra challenge to drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila, the asphalt must be tackled with their Fiesta RS WRCs in loose-surface specification and using Michelin's gravel tyres.
The team's journey from Europe across the Atlantic Ocean is a long one, but the atmosphere surrounding the event makes Rally Argentina a firm favourite. In a country where the tango mirrors the passion for life, the atmosphere crackles roadside in the special stages as the fans pour into the three different valleys of the province.
The scenery is stunning too, ranging from huge expanses of open plain north of the rally base in Carlos Paz, to the Traslasierra mountains further west where rocky ribbons of road wind through a dramatic moonlike landscape. The characteristics of the stages vary considerably in each valley, although the gravel roads are generally soft and sandy with many river crossings, and frequently become rutted during the second pass.
The new-look format will transform the classic El Condor stage into a mixed surface test for the first time and both Hirvonen, who lies second in the drivers' standings, and Latvala have prepared well for the challenge. Each tested for half a day last month in Sardinia on asphalt roads, with their cars in gravel specification to simulate what they will encounter in Argentina.
"The mixed surface stages will be hard for the tyres," said Hirvonen. "El Condor's gravel is tough to drive because it's narrow, twisty and rocky. This year the stage switches to asphalt which is wide and smooth, so I'll have to instantly change my approach. The car felt really good on asphalt in testing. It's the first time for the new-generation cars on that surface in competition, so it will be new for us all.
"There is a little bit of everything in this rally – gravel, asphalt, river crossings, long stages. May is late-autumn in Argentina and we can't be sure how the weather will be. It could be warm and dry, which will make conditions tough for soft compound tyres, or it could be wet and muddy, which will make the asphalt slippery. My speed on the last round in Italy was good and I was happy with the pace of the car, so I'm confident I can reproduce that here," said the 30-year-old Finn.
Latvala has four previous starts in Argentina to his name and the 26-year-old Finn also acknowledges that the 2011 rally will be hard.
"It's always a demanding rally over tough stages and this year there are plenty of kilometres on asphalt which we must drive on gravel tyres," he said. "Mixed surfaces in the same stage will require a total change of mentality when the roads switch from gravel to asphalt. It's important to be precise, to keep the driving line smooth and straight, to remember that the grip is different and the braking points won't be the same on gravel tyres as they would be on asphalt rubber.
"Friday's first leg is held on technical roads, which contrasts with the second leg which is based in fast stages and characterised by jumps and water crossings. Then the final leg contains what is probably the longest test in the championship this season. So it's important for a driver to adapt to the changes in rhythm each day," added Latvala.
* Michelin's new construction Latitude Cross gravel tyre will be used by the Ford Abu Dhabi drivers. It will be available in soft compound only for the first time this season. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the tyres and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Hirvonen and Latvala completed a four-day test this week in preparation for next month's Acropolis Rally of Greece. Latvala completed 443km in the opening two days, based in the Peloponnese peninsula near Corinth. Hirvonen took over for the final two days and covered 546km.
* Four other Fiesta RS WRCs are entered. Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin and Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson are nominated by the M-Sport Stobart Ford team. Munchi's Ford World Rally Team's Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc and Monster World Rally Team's Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino complete the registered championship entries from customer teams.
* Latvala will drive a two-litre Mk 2 Ford Escort RS as a course opening car in the POP Pankki SM-ralli in Finland on 11 June. The sixth round of the Finnish Championship is based in Lapua and Latvala will be partnered by Asko Sairanen.
Major changes have been introduced to the route, while still remaining faithful to the valleys of Cordoba province. The single lakeside service park in Carlos Paz remains unaltered but a new super special stage on the edge of town launches the action on Thursday afternoon. Friday's opening leg journeys south-west to the gruelling Traslasierra mountains and includes a double pass over the rocky El Condor and Giulio Césare tests, two of the most famous and toughest of the year which peak at 2195m. The second leg is based to the south in the Calamuchita valley, before a short but demanding final leg north of Carlos Paz in the Punilla Valley. It includes the monster 48.21km Ascochinga - Agua de Oro test, before a second pass over the super special stage and the Power Stage, where bonus points will be won by the fastest three drivers. Drivers tackle 19 stages covering 378.15km in a route of 1457.08km.