The FIA World Rally Championship journeys to North America this week for the first of seven consecutive gravel events.

Loose surface roads are the dominant terrain in the series, hosting 10 of the 15 rounds, and so Rally Mexico will offer the best guideline to date for the season ahead.

The Leon-based round is the first of three consecutive rounds outside Europe and is also the highest in the championship. Most speed tests are over 2000m and the first leg climbs to more than 2700m on hillsides awash with cacti and water crossings. The altitude takes its toll on cars as the thinner air means engines 'run out of breath' and can lose up to 30 per cent of their usual power.

The special stages are fast and flowing and average speeds last year topped 96kph. They are mostly hard-packed gravel, although some are sandier.

Special notes:

Mexico is the first traditional gravel rally of the year and it is also the first long-haul event, and the only time the crews will visit the North American continent.

Based in the city of Leon in the Guanajuato region of Mexico's central highlands, the event promises very different conditions to any seen so far this year in either Monte Carlo or Sweden.

Crews will compete for the first time on Pirelli's new Scorpion gravel championship control tyre, available in only one compound and tread pattern.

It will be the third different tyre design crews have used in the first three events of the year.

Crews are banned from cutting the tread of their tyres this year, which on gravel typically meant opening up the tread pattern to maximise the tyre's ability to cut through the loose surface.

This will mean road position is crucial as those further down the order will benefit from road cleaning, meaning a smoothing of the loose surface that will afford the standard tread better traction.

The region's hard-packed gravel roads are some of the highest of the year. Generally fast, they are tricky as they don't naturally flow through the mountainous terrain. The challenging combination of high and slow-speed sections make it difficult for crews to establish a rhythm along the sometimes narrow and technical tests. Those who are smoothest will improve the life and therefore grip from their tyres on the abrasive surface where tyre wear is very high.

The route is much the same as last year with only minor additions to sections of the Ortega and El Cubilete speed tests. Mexico is the most compact route in the WRC, and this year is even more so than last with a total distance of just 830 kilometres. The 354 competitive kilometres of gravel roads traverse the mountains of the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato to the east of Leon, reaching a peak altitude of just over 2700 metres where the oxygen is thin and engines struggle to develop power.

The event opens with a ceremonial start on Thursday night in front of the Alhondiga de Granaditas, an historic grain storage building which now serves as a regional museum.

A change from the first two events, the weather forecast is dry and windy, with temperatures reaching 25 degrees Celsius.

Each day is concluded by a 2.21km spectator stage, located 15km south-west of Leon, which will be run a total of five times over the three days to bring the action from the mountains to the local fans.

FIA World Rally Championship news:

Mikko Hirvonen leads the race for the 2008 FIA World Rally drivers' championship following the second round in the series, the Swedish Rally.

Mikko was second on the Karlstad-based round and increased his tally to 16 points. Sebastien Loeb dropped to second, after failing to score and is now equal on points with Jari-Matti Latvala, who won the Karlstad-based event.

In the Manufacturers' championship the BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT went top after picking up the maximum haul on round 2 and taking its tally to 26 points. Citroen drops to fourth, 1 point behind the Subaru WRT and the Stobart Ford team, which have both scored 16 points thus far.

News from the Manufacturers' teams:

Citroen Total WRT:

[Sebastien Loeb, car #1 and Daniel Sordo, car #2]

Loeb: I can't afford a Sweden repeat.

Sebastien Loeb has admitted that he will feel under a certain amount of pressure this weekend in Mexico.

Loeb made an uncharacteristic mistake on the last round in the championship and as a result of his off on day one in Sweden he failed to finish and add to the ten points he notched up after winning the season opening, Rallye Monte Carlo.

As such Seb slipped six points behind BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen and he knows he cannot afford to let the gap get any bigger.

Furthermore while he won the Leon-based event last year, he is aware it will be tough to repeat that feat, especially as this will be the first gravel event of the year with Pirelli's new Scorpion tyres.

"When you make a mistake and drop points, you're bound to feel a certain amount of pressure at the start of the following event. That will probably be the case for me in Mexico which isn't a simple event," he explained.

"The stages are quite varied, with a mix of wide, smooth roads and slower, twistier portions. The tyre factor will be important, too. The hard packed surface generally gives good grip, but it remains to be seen how it goes with our new Pirelli tyres. There is also a question mark concerning whether the dropping of mousse run-flat systems will lead to more punctures.

"It's a factor I will need to take into account in the way I drive, and I will also need to adapt my style to the lower engine power at high altitudes. We won this event last year, so we know that the C4 WRC is competitive in Mexico, and the whole team has worked very hard since last year's visit. I will still tackle it cautiously, though, because we can't afford to let the gap with our rivals get bigger."

Daniel Sordo meanwhile will be out to profit from his more favourable position in the order.

The Citroen #2 will run a lot further down the pack compared to Seb and that will give the Spaniard an advantage on the opening leg as a lot of the loose gravel will have been swept away.

Sordo has a good record in Mexico and while this will only be his third outing, he finished fourth last year and in 2006 with the Xsara.

"Mexico is something of a special event for me," he noted. "It's a long way from Spain but it feels a bit like home. I like the atmosphere and the spectators give us a warm welcome.

"Like their Spanish counterparts, they let their enthusiasm show and it's always nice to have their support. With the Manufacturers' championship in mind, it will be important to try to finish ahead of our rivals in order to pocket as many points as possible for Citroen. It won't be easy, but I enjoyed good runs on my first two visits here.

"I feel at ease on these stages and I hope I will feel as comfortable with the C4 in Le?n as I did recently in the slippery conditions we faced in Sweden. I will also try to profit from my running order on the first day."

BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT:

[Mikko Hirvonen, car #3 and Jari-Matti Latvala, car #4]

Mikko: I will attack as hard as I can.

Mikko Hirvonen has admitted that while it will be tough running first in the order on the opening day of the Rally Mexico it isn't something he minds too much.

The BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT #1 will have to run at the front on the first leg due to his position in the drivers' championship.

The Finn moved up into P1 in Sweden, thanks to his second runners-up spot in succession and he now heads Sebastien Loeb by 6 points, with two of the 15 events done and dusted.

Although it is still early days, the 27-year-old was happy to go top, as it is the first time he has ever held the position and now he will want to try and hang on to it, even if he will start at a disadvantage.

"I will attack as hard as I can from the start in Mexico. First on the road isn't the best place to be because there will be loose gravel and stones on the road surface," said the 27-year-old. "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."

Jari-Matti Latvala meanwhile has said he will be after a top-three finish. The Finn took his maiden victory in the WRC earlier this month and in the process became the youngest winner in the history of the sport.

The 22-year-old was in a class of his own and he eventually won the Swedish Rally by nearly a minute.

He isn't getting carried away however and he knows that Mexico will be a tougher nut to crack. Indeed Jari has only competed in Mexico twice to date, finishing seventh overall last year and ninth in the PWRC in 2006.

"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," he explained. "In the recce the Mexican roads are in a 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.

"Another win isn't a realistic aim and I would be happy with a top three position. I was very satisfied with our pre-event test. Pirelli's tyres felt strong. I had a couple of impacts with stones but no punctures so I have no concerns."

Subaru WRT:

[Petter Solberg, car #5 and Chris Atkinson, car #6]

Petter: We've made progress.

Petter Solberg will go into the Rally Mexico boosted by a good pre-event test.

'Hollywood' has had a solid start to the 2008 season and has notched up nine points thus far, thanks to a fifth place finish at the Principality and a fourth more recently in Sweden.

Following round two in the championship the Norwegian went straight to Spain, where the Subaru WRT conducted a four-day gravel test. Petter ran for two and a half days, while team-mate Chris Atkinson took over for the remainder.

Both worked on developing a set-up for this weekend's event, in addition to testing Pirelli's new gravel tyre and working on suspension and damper components in what was the final test for the Impreza WRC2007 as emphasis now shifts to the new '08 car.

'Hollywood' was happy with the work done and reckons they definitely made some progress. Despite that though and his good form in Mexico - he has finished on the podium twice in the last two years, winning it in 2005 - he remains cautious.

"We go to Mexico knowing that we have won here in the past, but we don't approach it any differently to Monte or Sweden," he explained. "We made some good steps forward in the pre-event test, so we go to Mexico with a good set-up. We'll drive our own rally, push as hard as we can and see what happens.

"I hope we will be strong again here as it's good for everyone if we can be fighting at the front."

Atkinson is also after a strong result and reckons that the Impreza WRC cars strong engine could give him and Petter a bit of an advantage.

"It's a difficult rally with the altitude and the conditions, but we approach it with the same strategy as we have started this year with," Chris added. "Last year we had a good result and good pace on the first day, so if we can maintain consistency throughout the event then I hope we can get a good finish.

"We have a strong engine in the car that seems to perform well at altitude which I think is one of the reasons we go well here. I like the feeling of the rally as it's good to have such a variation in speed and conditions that keeps you entertained! Visually it's appealing and very different, and that's what rallying is all about."

For more see Part 2 of our preview for the Rally Mexico.



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