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BRENTWOOD, England - Ford World Rally Team faces the longest FIA World Rally Championship encounter for almost 10 years in South America tomorrow. More than 500km of rough road competition lie in wait at Rally Argentina making this fifth round of the season the longest since Kenya’s legendary Safari Rally in 2002.
The emphasis will be on endurance with each of the three legs including a marathon speed test. Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson and team-mates Dani Sordo and Carlos del Barrio face two passes over a 52km special stage in the first leg. The going becomes even tougher in the final day with a 65.74km test across the Los Gigantes mountains, the longest of the season.
The increased distance brings the return of classic roads that will be new to the current generation of WRC drivers, having not been used since 1994.
More than a million people line the roadsides in Cordoba province, nearly 700km north-west of Buenos Aires. The event never fails to excite in a country where the tango mirrors the passion for life, and the atmosphere crackles alongside the gravel roads in the pampas as one of Argentina’s biggest fiesta occasions bursts into life.
The scenery is stunning, too, as each leg visits a different valley. Huge expanses of open plain in the Punilla Valley, north of the rally base in Carlos Paz, contrast with the gentle countryside to the south around the delightfully-named Santa Rosa de Calamuchita. Then the final day climbs into the Traslasierra mountains where rocky ribbons of road wind through a dramatic moonlike landscape.
The roads are predominantly soft and sandy during the opening two days, with plenty of river crossings, but the surface becomes more abrasive during the final leg west of Carlos Paz.
Solberg has delivered consistently strong results at the wheel of a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car during the opening four rounds which have carried him into second into the drivers’ standings, just four points from the lead.
“I enjoy this rally but I think it could be quite different this year,” said Solberg, for whom this will be his 180th WRC start. “It’s 120km longer than in 2011 and that may alter the way in which some drivers approach it. It’s not a sprint, it’s an endurance rally. There’s no need to get too excited too early and attack from the start, so I can wait a little, judge the pace and push later on when I need to.
“It’s a difficult rally. The final day’s stages are at high altitude and conditions can be bad up there. Fog and even ice are not unusual. But I love it, partly because of the atmosphere. The stages are packed with people and even the liaison sections on the public roads have huge crowds. They’re so enthusiastic,” added 37-year-old Solberg, who has three podiums to his name here.
Sordo steps into the Ford squad for a one-off outing to replace the injured Jari-Matti Latvala. His experience of a Fiesta RS WRC is limited to a day’s testing on Wednesday close to the team’s Dovenby Hall base in Britain. Sordo finished second last year, his best result from five starts, and as a Spaniard, the 28-year-old will be a favourite of the Latin American fans.
“I’m excited to be driving for Ford in Argentina because when you are a rally driver all you want to do is compete,” said Sordo. “Although I’ve not had a lot of time behind the wheel of the Fiesta RS WRC, I quickly felt comfortable in the car during testing. The engineers provided a base set-up that worked for me and I’ll approach practice in Argentina with those settings.
“It’s like a home event for me because I speak the same language and in previous years the support from the fans was fantastic. This is only a one-off drive for Ford, but I want to do the best for the team and prove they made the right decision in selecting me. I’m not setting any targets, apart from a points finish, and I’ll judge my pace by how I feel once the rally gets under way,” he added.
* Michelin’s Latitude Cross gravel tyres will be used by the Ford drivers and 40 of these will be available in hard compound. New-for-2012 regulations mean drivers will also have 10 soft compound tyres available if conditions are wet and muddy. However, only 40 units can be used in total during qualifying and the rally itself. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the tyres and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Five privately-entered Fiesta RS WRCs are entered. Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk and Evgeny Novikov / Denis Giraudet are nominated by M-Sport Ford World Rally Team. Rally de Portugal winners Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson are entered by Adapta World Rally Team, while Brazil World Rally Team returns after its debut there with Daniel Oliveira / Carlos Magalhães at the wheel. The Fiesta RS WRC numbers are completed by Martin Prokop / Zdeněk Hrůza in a Czech Ford National Team car.
The rally is again based around the lakeside service park in Carlos Paz but only a handful of stages are the same as last year. One of these is the floodlit super special stage on the edge of the town that launches the rally this (Thursday) evening and is repeated on Saturday night. The first full day tomorrow is the longest, with almost 200km of competition north of Carlos Paz in the Punilla Valley. The second leg journeys south to the Calamuchita Valley before the final day in the rugged Traslasierra mountains. It includes the classic El Condor and Giulio Cesare stages as well as the 65.74km test from Matadero to Ambul, an amalgamation of four stages last used in 1996. The final test, which crosses the picturesque hanging bridges near Copina, forms the Power Stage, with bonus points on offer to the fastest three drivers. Competitors tackle 19 stages in total, covering 502.73km in a route of 1770.92km.