26 Feb 08
After establishing an early season championship lead after going well on asphalt and snow, the BP Ford Team is hoping to complete the triple by setting the pace on the gravel roads of Mexico.
The Ford Focus RS was on dominant form on the last outing in Sweden, claiming a clean sweep of the podium positions and combined with second place on the season-opener in Monte Carlo, the reigning world manufacturers' champions will go to the third round with a 10-point lead. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are six points clear in the drivers' table with Sweden winners Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila tied in second.
Hirvonen, whose best finish in his three previous starts was third last year, will be first in the start order on the opening day courtesy of being championship leader for the first time in his career. "First on the road isn't the best place to be in Mexico because there will be loose gravel and stones on the road surface," said the 27-year-old Finn. "It's better to be further down the order where the roads will be cleaner but I don't mind putting up with that if it means I lead the championship. I really don't want to start first on Saturday or Sunday though, and it will be interesting to see if tactics come into play at the end of the first day as drivers try to obtain a better start position for the rest of the weekend.
"Technically the roads are a mix. About 50 per cent is quite straightforward and the rest is more difficult. There are also plenty of stones on the edge of the road. In the past, with puncture-resistant mousse in the tyres, that wouldn't have been a problem but now it's something I have to think about more carefully. The altitude is the most difficult aspect because the higher the stages, the less power there is and sometimes when you need the power it isn't there. I will attack as hard as I can from the start. We had a good test last week and I was pleased with Pirelli's gravel tyre. I'm not concerned about punctures or tyre wear," added Hirvonen.
Latvala became the youngest driver in history to win a WRC round in Sweden on only his second outing with the team. The 22-year-old Finn acknowledges that victory imposed demands on him that he had not experienced before. "It was a surprise because I didn't expect so much media interest and I was very busy handling interviews for a few days after the rally," he said. "I don't have as much experience in Mexico compared to some other rounds and I need to be a bit calmer than in Sweden. Another win isn't a realistic aim and I would be happy with a top three position. I was very satisfied with last week's test. Pirelli's tyres felt strong. I had a couple of impacts with stones but no punctures so I have no concerns."
Latvala was seventh last year, his best result from just two starts, and has learned to be cautious of the water crossings. "In the recce the roads are in good condition but it's surprising how many big impacts the cars can take during the rally itself. Where the water flows down from the mountains and crosses the roads, the concrete crossings can be deep and after a fast section the car can take quite a hard impact there," he explained.
The team prepared for the rally with a four-day test at Chateau Lastours in France following the Swedish Rally. It was the first opportunity for both Hirvonen and Latvala to test Pirelli's new gravel tyre. Each drove for two days, concentrating on tyre work and completing about 400km each with no punctures. They also tested some new development parts for the Focus RS.