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GP Week : Issue 117
WRC PREVIEW >> Nearlyhalfwayintothe2011world championship and Citroen have marginally gained the upper hand, with four victories against one for their rivals Ford, but the fight is still close. The next event is this week’s Rally Argentina. It is two years since the WRC has been to South America, although this is the thirtieth time the world rally championship in one guise or another has been to Argentina, and the 27th time the event takes place in Cordoba province. This is very much the heartland of Argentine rallying, the area where the majority of drivers and teams are based even though national rallying itself extends over a wide part of the country. The territory is familiar to all the visitors. Stages are basically hard-packed sand, at quite high elevation, extending up to 2000 metres, stretching in all directions away from the lakeside resort headquarters town of Villa Carlos Paz. Themainnoveltyaboutthisyear’sSouth American round of the series is that the organisers have gone ‘mixed’, embracing the FIA’s new preference for variety of event style. There are two stage locations with a significant mixed content. One is the downhill El Condor stage, in the hills to the west of Villa Carlos Paz, in which over half of the traditionally rough 37km gravel stage will now be run on newly- prepared asphalt surface. This has given teams worries about brake efficiencies. As this is a mostly gravel stage event, small 15inch wheels are fitted, with smaller diameter 300mm brake discs inside. The El Condor stage is run twice on the first full day. The southern stage loop to be run on Day 2 features a new stage, due south, not far from Villa Carlos Paz. This Las Jarillas stage starts on a gravel road then turns on to a mountainous stretch of main road which is asphalt. Teams hope the organisers will give permission for a tyre change so that the group of three gravel stages further south can be tackled on each loop on fresh gravel tyres. Photographers will be sad that the section of special stage past the remarkable rocks at the end of the preceding and easily-accessible Guilio Cesare stage have been sacrificed in order to provide the asphalt content to the El Condor stage. There are two other novelties in the route. Two famous stages to the north have been merged to make one section of 48.21km – but do not get too excited. On the 1984 event, the first year the WRC went to the Cordoba province, the same roads and more were used (in the opposite direction) to run a stage of 62.62km! This is used once, on Day 3. And then there is a brand new superspecial venue. This is located at the north-east end of Villa Carlos Paz close to the road in from Cordoba, with a classic side-by-side, figure-of-eight design. This design is remarkably similar in layout to the Pro Racing superspecial course which was laid out 12 years earlier the other side of the Cordoba highway. It will be used in late afternoon on the Thursday evening and then as the penultimate stage of Day 3, just before the Power Stage. The Power Stage is to be run just after midday, as usual in reverse seeded order for the top cars. On three occasions (before the Superspecial, before the Power Stage and then before the Podium) on the short final day of four stages there are different running order regulations! Seventyentrieswerereceivedforthis event, split into two divisions. The full WRC event has attracted 52 entries. The other 18 entries are for a parallel event called the ACA Cup which caters for nationally or regionally homologated cars. Neither event qualifies for either the FIA’s now shortened regional Codasur series or the 10-round national ‘Rally Argentino’ championship. Although these events are individually much shorter, regular participation in these series is very demanding in commitment. Furthermore the technical rules for cars in the national series do not entirely follow the FIA rules. The ACA Cup event is specially relevant to the new Maxi Rally cars, cars based on Super 2000 design principles but with single supplier engines as well as transmissions. These cars are not homologated by the FIA for world-wide use. Of the six importers who have allowed their cars to be modified for this formula, three of them (Chevrolet, Ford and VW) have cars taking part on the ACA event. This separate event also provides for the Group N based cars which have been specially modified, often featuring special locally-fabricated body parts. It is planned that the ACA Cup cars will run after the WRC competitors for the full length of the rally. Maxi Rally cars have recently dominated rally sport in Argentina. At the curiously named Oil and Dinosaurs Rally at Neuquen, round 3 of the series, these cars took six of the top seven places. The 42 year-old WRC driver Federico Villagra (Ford Fiesta) beat the 23 year-old Academy driver Miguel Baldoni (VW Gol Trend) by 11 seconds with Mitsubishi driver Juan Marchetto more than a minute behind the winner. But these special cars have helped further alienate the national from international sport in the country. The only top Argentine driver we will see on the WRC event is Villagra. In the ACA Cup we will also see Marcos Ligato and the Argentino championship leader Marchetto but nothing of successful drivers such as Gabriel Pozzo, Claudio Menzi or Raul Martinez ... The impressive aspect, however, is this situation makes Rally Argentina a massively international event! Citroen take only four cars to Argentina (they are to run six cars in the following event, in Greece), and are planning a special ‘road show ’ in the streets of Buenos Aires on the Saturday before the event. Citroen Total team start the event 17 points ahead of the Ford Abu Dhabi team. Of the registered teams, Ice Man (Kimi Raikkonen) has elected not to contest this event but Brazil’s WRT (Daniel Oliveira) once again has entered a World Rally Car version of the Mini John Cooper Works. Of the non-championship WRC drivers, Henning Solberg has announced his withdrawal from this event on financial grounds. There will therefore be 11 World Rally Cars. The secondary championship series here will be the PCWRC. This is only the third round of the series: some contenders (like the series leader Martin Semerad) have already competed twice, others (like Hayden Paddon) only once. Ten of the 19 registered contenders, will be present, but there will be no Guest drivers, for reasons already explained. Patrik Flodin, struggling with only one point from two events, comes to Argentina with a changed co- driver, reverting to former co-driver Maria Andersson. Even if some of their best drivers will unfortunately be staying at home, there will be a lot to watch out for in Argentina this year. Not the least are the organisers’ continued efforts to expand events to embrace some of its neighbouring Codasur countries. Listen out for rumours of stages in neighbouring countries, maybe ceremonial starts in others. Ceremonial starts all round the countries in the Codasur region? Now there is a familiar thought. Monte Carlo-style concentration runs from neighbouring capital cities was how the original Argentine world championship rally was organised, in 1980. And how is it that the FIA is so involved in trying to revert to tradition on this event? Look at the results of the 1979 Codasur Rally, Argentina’s multi-national cross-border pre-championship trial event. The winning co-driver back then, is today’s ruling President of the FIA. There is nothing new under the sun in this business, particularly in South America.