23 Mar 08
The FIA World Rally Championship heads back across the Atlantic Ocean for round four of the 2008 series, Rally Argentina, which starts on 27 March.
One of the Championship's most spectacular and demanding events, Rally Argentina is the second WRC fixture in the Americas this month and is based in the town of Villa Carlos Paz, 35km south of Cordoba and right in the heart of the stunning Cordobese Sierras.
For 2008 the rally keeps its traditional format of visiting the three valleys of Cordoba province, each of which offers gravel stages of differing character and landscape. The scenery ranges from huge expanses of open plains north of Carlos Paz, to the mountains further west where narrow rocky tracks wind through a dramatic, high altitude landscape that looks like the surface of the moon.
There are some small changes to the itinerary, though, as several of last year's scheduled opening day tests near La Falda have been dropped and two stages not used for several years have been reintroduced. Organisers have also scrapped the opening stage in Buenos Aires' River Plate soccer stadium which proved such a logistical headache in 2007.
In general the stages of Rally Argentina are soft and sandy, with many river crossings, and frequently become rutted during the second pass. Just as was the case in Mexico, all WRC teams will use the hard compound Pirelli Scorpion control tyre.
The first day heads north from the Carlos Paz base into the Punilla Valley while the second leg, the longest of the event, heads south to the Calamuchita valley for a double pass over faster roads. Both days end with a new stage run in the grounds of Cordoba's soccer stadium. The final leg covers just 42km south-west of Carlos Paz in the Traslasierra Mountains, comprising the rocky El Condor and Giulio Cesare tests, two of the most famous and toughest in the championship, which peak at 2195m. It ends with a super special stage over a different route at the stadium. In total drivers face 21 stages covering 347.91km in a route of 1619.45km.
The spectacular scenery means Argentina is hugely popular with spectators and this year more than a million are expected to watch the action on the stages. And this year all eyes will be on the thrilling three-way battle for the lead of the drivers' championship. Ford's Mikko Hirvonen will start the rally just ahead of the pack, but with Citroen's reigning champion Sebastien Loeb just one point behind, and Hirvonen's own team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala on dominant form in Mexico, the rally could well bring some changes to the title race.