After the first long haul event of the season three weeks ago, the FIA World Rally Championship will once again head west, this time to South America and the gravel routes of Rally Argentina.

The event never fails to excite in a country where the tango mirrors the passion and fervour for life. It is surrounded by colour and the atmosphere crackles as more than a million fanatical Latin Americans flock out into the vast pampas of Cordoba province for a weekend-long fiesta.

The scenery is stunning too, ranging from huge expanses of open plains north of the host town of Carlos Paz to the mountains further west where rocky ribbons of road wind through a dramatic moon-like landscape.

Special notes:

Argentina is another true classic and one that tests crews with very different conditions on each day of competition.

The event has been run in May as part of the WRC for the last two years, but this season sees the event brought forwards by six weeks in a return to March running which may present more unpredictable weather to add to the mix.

Each of the three days on this demanding event pitches crews against a different backdrop and road surface, making for an incredibly varied event in which those who are fast on one day may slip back the next.

The stages on day one are very fast and similar to those in Mexico, while competition on day two is run on a very hard base of sand. Day three climbs high into the mountains and is very twisty. Such is the variation that the teams will approach each day anew.

The rally is based in Villa Carlos Paz in the city of Cordoba, nestled into the banks of the San Roque Lake. The service park lies at a height of 650 metres above sea level, but stages rise steeply into the surrounding mountains to a peak of 2100 metres, making this another high-altitude encounter.

Road position is particularly important as crews who are able to run the stages before the loose surface deteriorates too badly will gain significant advantage. The second passes of the stages in the afternoon will likely be increasingly treacherous for those further down the order as the ruts cut deep into the road. On the tough tests and in the inconsistent conditions, drivers must perform consistently to stay at the front.

The stages consist of medium- to high-speed routes that flow through the mountains in and around Cordoba, with a superspecial stage held inside the Cordoba Stadium. Crews will use the same hard compound variant of Pirelli Scorpion gravel tyre as debuted in Mexico.

This rally is extremely tough on cars as the environment is harsh and unforgiving and the high altitude robs the engines of power on the final day.

The event comprises 21 stages over 352 competitive kilometres through the Punilla Valley to the north of Cordoba, Santa Rosa de Calamuchita to the south and Traslasierra to the west. The spectator Superspecial stage inside the Cordoba Stadium will be run a total of three times, once at the end of each day.

FIA World Rally Championship news:

Despite only finishing fourth in Mexico earlier this month, Mikko Hirvonen remained in the lead in the race for the 2008 FIA World Rally drivers' championship title. Mikko increased his tally to 21 points following the Leon-based round, while Sebastien Loeb, who won the event, now lies just 1 point behind. Jari-Matti Latvala is a further 4 points back in third.

In the Manufacturers' championship the BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT remains top, having increased its lead from 10 points to 12. Citroen is now joint second with Subaru - both outfits having scored 25 points.

News from the Manufacturers' teams:

Citroen Total WRT:

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

Loeb eyes fourth win in a row in Argentina.

Sebastien Loeb will be out to extend his winning streak in Argentina and try to re-gain the lead in the battle for the 2008 drivers' title.

The Frenchman took his third win in a row in Mexico at the start of March and a win in Cordoba on Sunday would give him his fourth victory in succession in Argentina - and Citroen its fifth.

Loeb didn't have it easy though on round three and he was pushed hard by Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala. As such he has said that winning is not the 'absolute priority'. Indeed he is just hoping that he will be competitive in his C4 WRC and that the Pirelli tyres will perform as he wants.

"I really do enjoy this event. It's one of the best of the year," he stated. "There's always a very special atmosphere and it's nice to see such enthusiastic spectators.

"Daniel [Elena - my co-driver] and I have won the last three events and another victory would put us back on top of the championship standings. However, that's not an absolute priority; above all, I hope we are competitive.

"The major unknown factor concerns how our tyres will perform. We are forced to run hard compound Pirellis which isn't ideal for Argentina's sandy, low-wearing stages. We will need to find a set-up that gives us as much grip as possible."

Daniel Sordo meanwhile is hoping to fare better on round four. The Spaniard lost any chance of a decent result on the previous event when he hit a concealed rock early in the opening test, something that broke the front left suspension on his C4 WRC car and put him out.

While that spoilt any chance of him getting into the points, the Spaniard rejoined under the SupeRally on days two and three and his pace was extremely promising.

Now he will be out to try and improve on his previous finishes in Villa Carlos Paz, having been sixth in '07 and fifth in '06.

"I hope we will fare better than we did in Mexico," he confirmed, "although I must say that Rally Mexico showed me that my gravel driving technique is getting better and better. I will need to have the same feeling in Villa Carlos Paz if I want to score a top result.

"I like this event. It is another rally in a Spanish-speaking country and that is nice. I like its fast, varied stages too, and the spectacular positions we find ourselves in when we land after certain jumps.

"We went well with the C4 here last year and we will do our best to do the same this time round to try to secure a good finish in terms of the Manufacturers' championship."

BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT:

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

Latvala to push for gold.

Jari-Matti Latvala has warned his rivals that he is going to go for it again this weekend. The 22-year-old's form on the last two rounds has been fantastic and after securing his maiden WRC win in Sweden, his confidence was given a huge boost.

It was no surprise then that he was right up there in Mexico and battling for the victory, until mechanical problems on day 2 - a broken turbo pipe - dropped him back and he had to settle for third.

Last season the Finn was fourth in Cordoba, while competing with the Blue Oval's 'B' team under the Stobart banner and this will be his third outing in South America, having also done the event in 2005.

"I'm hoping to be able to find the same speed in Argentina that I did in Mexico," he confirmed, "so that I can fight with Mikko, S?bastien Loeb and the other leading drivers for a top placing.

"The Rally Argentina is one of my favourite rallies. The people there are welcoming and friendly and they have great passion for the sport. Only Finland is more enthusiastic than Argentina - and it is a really great feeling to have."

Mikko Hirvonen meanwhile believes that he won't find it so tough running first in the order on the opening day. The Finn got his first taste of leading the pack in Mexico and admitted to being really annoyed at the end of the first loop in Leon, having been unable to match his team-mate or Loeb. In the end he finished the leg in fifth place.

Although he eventually took fourth overall, his problem on day one really cost him and he will face a similar situation this Friday, as he is still the championship leader - albeit just one point in front of Loeb now - and subseqently will once again have to 'sweep' away the loose gravel for the benefit of those behind.

The 27-year-old is however philosophical about the situation and reckons he should be able to better manage it this time out.

"I can't change that situation so there's no point in worrying about it," he said. "I learned things about running first on the road in Mexico that will help me in Argentina, but I don't think it will be as big a disadvantage here as it was in Mexico earlier this month.

"Argentina is the greatest country to drive in of any of the WRC rounds. The fans are so enthusiastic and on some stages the road is lined with people virtually from start to finish.

"It's a fantastic atmosphere and something that I really notice from inside the car. The rally is varied, with many different types of roads which make it interesting to drive. It's quite flowing throughout, but it's not flat out all the way and the stages can be rough in places."

Subaru WRT:

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

Petter: We can fight at the top.

Petter Solberg is feeling 'very positive' ahead of the Rally Argentina and reckons he should be able to battle it out for a good result.

The Banbury-based outfit did well earlier this month in Mexico and while it was Hollywood's team-mate Chris Atkinson who got onto the podium and took the runners-up spot, Petter was also running strongly until he suffered a driveshaft failure on day 2 and was forced to retire from the leg.

The Norwegian however, was still pleased with the speed of his Impreza WRC car and having done the Cordoba-based event eight times before and having finished second in 2002 and 2006, he would love to finish as high up the order this coming Sunday.

"The rally is very narrow and fast, and it's very good! Especially the people: there are so many fans that always come to watch the rally which makes it very special," said Petter.

"The team have worked very hard since Mexico, I'm feeling very positive and I think everyone is feeling more confident for Argentina.

"We'll go there and judge our pace but I think we can fight at the top. We'll get the feel of the car from shakedown and then we'll take it step by step and push from there. I'll push hard, and then push a little more. That is my approach."

Subaru team boss David Richards meanwhile is also hopeful that Petter and Atkinson will be able to do well and continue to show that the squad is making progress.

"Argentina is a spectacular event but it also brings a host of new challenges to the season for both drivers and cars. After the strong pace we demonstrated in Mexico, the team have been working hard to maintain our upward momentum and I'm confident that we will continue this progress in Argentina," he added.

"The key is to keep up the pace of development so as to really hit our stride mid-year with the introduction of the new car."

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



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