28 Feb 08
Rally Mexico marks an important milestone for Toni Gardemeister and Suzuki. For Gardemeister, Mexico is his 100th World Rally Championship start, while for Suzuki it is the SX4 WRC's first competitive appearance outside of Europe - as well as the first round of this year's championship to be held on gravel.
Having started his World Championship career on the 1996 Rally Finland, Gardemeister is also the factory driver who has been competing on the series for the longest amount of time - despite the fact that he is still only 32 years of age.
As the new boys in the WRC, Suzuki finds itself facing a steep learning curve. With the last test event on gravel for the SX4 WRC coming at the 2007 Rally Great Britain,the team and drivers will have to try to find the correct set-up as they go along. As the first rally of the year to be held in normal gravel conditions, Mexico is a crucial event for Suzuki and the information gathered in the heat and dust of the event will be vital for the many gravel events that are still to come.
Mexico joined the World Rally Championship in 2004, but Suzuki has only competed there once - with the Ignis Super 1600 in 2005. The SX4 WRC only has one gravel event behind it - last year's Rally Great Britain with Sebastian Lindholm - so there will be a lot to learn. Nonetheless the basic speed and reliability of the SX4 WRC has been encouraging for a car in this very early stage of its career, with a pair of points finishes already in the bag after Monte Carlo and Sweden.
Following the Swedish Rally Suzuki has made a number of small improvements to the hydraulic system in order to improve reliability and also performance. The Mexican stages are reasonably smooth so the car will run in standard gravel trim. The roads are notoriously hard on brakes though, which will be one of the many factors considered when determining the set-up.
Toni Gardemeister and P-G Andersson have one thing in common heading into the Rally Mexico: they have both competed on the rally on just one occasion, in 2005. Andersson has happy memories of the event, finishing second in class behind his Suzuki team mate, while Gardemeister mostly remembers being afflicted with a heavy flu that hampered his performance.
On the occasion of his 100th world rally though, the Finn is feeling upbeat and in perfect health. "To rack up 100 world rallies is a nice achievement," he said. "I've been in the championship for quite some time now, but it's a bit misleading as there are quite a lot of people who have done more rallies than me. I'm looking forward to Mexico: I was so ill the last time I did it that I struggled to finish sixth. Maybe that's why I don't remember so much about it. But I do remember that the stages were nice, although there were some very big rocks that seemed to come out of nowhere. We have to be realistic and accept that this will not be an easy rally for us as everything is unknown. But I'm aiming to enjoy my 100th event and score some more points for Suzuki. I think that's definitely possible."
P-G Andersson also has very little idea about what to expect from the Mexican stages this time round - but he knows that the roads will be tough and unpredictable. "It's actually the sort of event where absolutely anything might happen," he said. "If things go well and other people have problems, you could be in the top five. Equally, you could be unlucky and hit trouble. Realistically I think we have to aim for the top eight. Because of the altitude and our lack of experience compared to everyone else, that would be a good result."
Nobuhiro 'Monster' Tajima, Suzuki's team principal, commented: "This rally will be a very big test for us, but we need to approach it patiently and methodically as we have done throughout the season so far. Of course we start off at a disadvantage compared to our more experienced rivals, but this is all part of the learning process. Gravel will be a new adventure for us this year in Mexico and it is important for us to get it right, step by step, in view of all the other events to come. At the same time we aim to enjoy ourselves and help Toni celebrate his 100 World Rallies! I am very pleased that this important anniversary has come with Suzuki."