LEON, Mexico - Two hundred years after Mexico's native Indians began their fight for independence against Spanish rule in Guanajuato, BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team takes up the call to arms in the mountains near the city for a battle of a different kind. The team goes to Rally Mexico (4 - 7 March), the second round of the FIA World Rally Championship, intent on extending its lead in both the manufacturers' and drivers' standings.
Victory for Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and third for team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila in Sweden last month means the team heads both championships with the Focus RS World Rally Car. Hirvonen's win moved Ford level at the top of the WRC's all-time standings with 74 victories and the 29-year-old Finn celebrates an anniversary of his own in Mexico – his 100th WRC start.
The rally, which returns to the series after a year's absence, is a key part of Guanajuato state's bicentennial celebrations. It is based in the large city of León in the centre of the country, 400km north-west of Mexico City. The compact route comprises speed tests in the mountains to the north and east and most climb above 2000m on hillsides awash with cacti and water crossings, making this the highest round of the season. The altitude takes its toll on cars as the thinner air means engines 'run out of breath' and can lose up to 30% of their usual power.
The road surface is essentially hard-packed gravel, although some parts are sandier and can become rough during the second pass. Most special stages are fast and flowing, although there are slower, more technically demanding sections as well. There are also tests at two short spectator-friendly venues, one in León city itself, immediately next to the single service park at the Poliforum.
Hirvonen has four Mexico starts to his name, third in 2007 being his best result. The 29-year-old Finn will be first in the start order during the opening leg following his Swedish success, but is happy to carry the role of creating a clear driving line for his rivals on the gravel tracks.
"Leading the championship can have its disadvantages, and I now run first on the road for the opening gravel rally of the season. My rivals have better road positions than me so it will be difficult, but I'll still try to find a way to challenge for the win. I'm not underestimating the difficulties, but I wouldn't swap my win in Sweden for a better start seeding," he said.
"Sweden was the perfect start to the championship for both me and the team. It's important that we build on that in Mexico and continue to take the brave decisions that paid off in the opening round. The first gravel rally of the season is always an interesting one because, with the majority of the championship on that surface, it gives pointers as to how the season may play out," added Hirvonen, who flies to León today (Friday) to acclimatise to the high altitude and the eight-hour time difference between his home country and Mexico.
This will be the fourth Rally Mexico start for Latvala, who finished third in 2008, and a podium in Sweden has left the 24-year-old feeling calm about the challenge ahead. "I've not enjoyed as good a start to a season for five years and it's a completely different sensation to go to Mexico feeling relaxed and under less pressure," he said.
"I tested for two days in Spain last week but the weather was more suited to Rally GB than a hot event like Rally Mexico. It rained so the roads were muddy and the morning temperature was -2ºC. At least I managed to find a good feeling with gravel tyres again and I tried a few small changes with the car.
"Mexico's high altitude affects the engine's performance and because there is less power, the car takes longer to reach top speed. It's important to keep the correct line through corners, particularly in uphill sections, because a mistake costs more time than usual while the engine regains its power. The roads are generally wide and fast but there are twisty sections during Saturday's stages. They're not rough, but there are many small river crossings where the water runs down from the mountains that have a concrete base. When you hit them at speed they can damage the car," added Latvala.
* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide BP Ford Abu Dhabi with one regulation tyre pattern. The Scorpion gravel tyre 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.
* Ford is again the most popular manufacturer in the entry with nine of the 35 entry cars carrying the Blue Oval. Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor and Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are nominated by the Stobart M-Sport Ford team in Focus RS WRCs while Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc will make their season debut for the Munchi's Ford squad in a similar car. Also debuting is the all-new Monster World Rally Team, for whom Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino will drive a Focus RS WRC. Three Fiesta S2000 crews will start in the second round of the S-WRC support series.
Organisers have stayed faithful to their tried and tested format with few changes from Mexico's last WRC appearance. The major difference is the introduction of a short street stage in the middle of the opening two legs just behind the service park at León's Poliforum. Otherwise, just one Sunday morning test offers new roads. It is a highly compact rally, covering just 884.58km with 40 per cent of that being competitive, and the opening day's Ortega test climbs to a breathtaking 2737m – the high point of the season. The rally begins on Thursday evening with a colourful ceremonial start in Guanajuato, where more than 60,000 people are expected to pack the streets. The town is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, famed for rich veins of silver and gold discovered centuries ago and extensive underground tunnels. All the action takes place north and east of León and the opening two legs end with two passes over a super special stage at the city's race circuit. The track hosts a double run on Sunday to close the rally. Drivers tackle 22 stages covering 354.60km.