25 Feb 08
Round three of the 2008 World Rally Championship gets underway on 28 February on the gravel stages of Rally Mexico.
The rally made its debut on the WRC calendar in 2004 and has quickly proved to be a popular addition to the series, with a compact series of well-organised, high-speed gravel stages through the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato mountains and plains around the cities of Guanajuato and Leon.
After the asphalt of Monte Carlo and the (patchy) snow of Sweden, Mexico is the first of three consecutive rounds outside Europe and the first of seven consecutive gravel events. And as loose surface roads are the dominant terrain in the series - hosting 10 of the 15 rounds - Rally Mexico will offer the best form-guide yet for the season ahead.
Rally Mexico is the highest round in the series. Most stages are over 2000m above sea level and the first leg climbs to more than 2700m on hillsides awash with cacti and water crossings. But while the altitude may be breathtaking for the spectators, the thinner air is doing the same to the engines of the rally cars, which can lose up to 30 per cent of their usual power.
But despite the lack of power, the special stages are generally fast and flowing and average speeds last year topped 96kph. They roads are mostly hard-packed gravel, although some are sandier and at this time of year the road surface is expected to be dry and loose. Rocks feature heavily here and boulders are regularly uncovered or flicked onto the road by cars ahead, so drivers have to balance high speeds with caution.
The rally’s dry and dusty roads can make ‘sweeping’ an issue for the first cars through each new stage. Those drivers running first and second are faced with the worst of the loose and sandy top layer, which is quickly swept away to the benefit of the cars behind. Drivers will tackle the first day’s stages in championship order, meaning Mikko Hirvonen might be at an initial disadvantage, while on days two and three the rally leader will go first. This is a change to last year’s system, when the top-15 ran in reverse order, and may lead to some tactical manoeuvring as drivers deliberately drop places to avoid being first on the road.