Argentina, like many people, I always thought it was a country just a bit south of Mexico and fairly close to the U.S., but that is anything but the case. The country lies in the southern part of South America, 7000 miles away from Phoenix by Air. It takes just as long to fly to the capital city of Buenos Aires as it does to fly to central Europe.
450 miles northeast of Buenos Aires lies the town of Villa Carlos Paz, the home for round six of the World Rally Championship, Rally Argentina. The 19 special stages were split over four days and covered 235 miles of the Argentine countryside. Carlos Paz lies in the foothills of northwest Argentina and the stages took full advantage of the elevation changes and stunning scenery of the region.
Baja veterans will be surprised at the similarity of the terrain and fauna found in the Carlos Paz area. The rolling hills, the cacti, the plants and even the color of the dirt. And just like baja the fans are incredibly enthusiastic and passionate about off road motorsports (Argentina also hosts the infamous Dakar rally). The stages are lined with thousands of screaming fans, many of whom enjoy beer and Fernet and Cola, a local favorite. Some drive into the stage early in the morning but many more camp out the night before and make it a multi day party. If trophy trucks were running instead of rally cars you could easily think you were at Borrego, Zoo Road or Ojos Negros.
A new rule set and new cars for the WRC in 2011 saw the addition of more manufacturers as well. Mini joined the series for 2011 and VW will have a factory team in 2012. The new WRC cars are based on smaller vehicles than previous years and are similar to the S2000 classification. Citroen uses the DS3, Ford the Fiesta and Mini uses a mini. Previously Citroen used the c4 and Ford the Focus with 2.0 liter turbo charged engines. All the new cars feature a turbo 1.6 liter with four wheel drive. So far this season the new cars are proving to be even faster with many old records falling.
Most rallies feature rather smooth graded dirt roads which promote very high speeds for the cars. Rally Argentina was quite the opposite featuring very rough dirt roads full of large sharp rocks waiting to puncture tires, huge boulders waiting to rip an A arm from a car, high cliffs with drops of hundreds of feet and large holes waiting to punish suspensions. In short, it is the rally version of the Mint course.
The rally began on Thursday with the shakedown stage. Each driver is allowed four runs on the stage and many return to the service park (main pit to us) for setup and tuning changes between runs to dial in the car. Times on the shakedown stage do not count towards the final results.
The first special stage of the rally was Thursday afternoon, a 3km super special stage in the heart of Carlos Paz. The stage had two lanes and pitted racers against each other head to head in front of thousands of spectators in grandstands, on hillsides, or being pampered in the VIP tents. Sebastien Loeb took the top spot on the stage by .9 of a second over Petter Solberg with Sebastien Ogier another .1 second back in third given Citroen a sweep of the podium.
The rally continued on Friday with six more stages to the west of Carlos Paz on top of the mountains at 7000 feet. Three special stages would be run twice each for a daily total of 100 miles. Jari-Matti Latvala won the first four stages in his Ford and giving him a lead of 12.1 seconds over Solberg. Solberg then won stage 6 – Giulio Cesare, by 1.6 seconds over Ogier with Latvala in third.
The final stage of the day, El Condor, saw Loeb race to the stage win by 2 seconds over Latvala and 8.1 seconds over Solberg. When the times were totaled for day 1 Latvala held a healthy lead of 18.2 seconds over Solberg and 28.8 over Ogier. Seven time consecutive world champion Loeb was fifth, 90 seconds behind Latvala.
Day two was comprised of four stages each run twice for a total of 100 miles. Day two opened with special stage eight, Las Jarillas. Previously in the WRC all stages of a rally were either pavement or dirt but for the first time in the history of the sport the rules were opened to allow both surfaces in one rally.
Las Jarillas will go down in rally history as the first WRC stage to combine both surfaces. The 13.4 mile stage began with 4.9 miles of dirt and followed with 8.5 miles of pavement on a twisting mountain road full of hairpins and high speed sweepers. The service park was awash in rumors after the drivers did their recce (prerun) on the stage. Loeb had told his team that if he drove at 100% on the pavement his tires would be slicks with three miles of pavement left in the stage. Keep in mind that the rally was mostly dirt so the cars were using soft compound off road tires for maximum grip on most of the stages. Further complicating matters was that each team was allocated just 35 tires for the entire rally, which added another element of strategy to the mix.
Most of the corners also had patches of dirt on the inside of the pavement. Latvala was first on the stage and he took advantage of his position to cut to the inside of all the corners throwing dirt and rocks all over the pavement to reduce grip levels and slow down his competition. In the end it was Ogier that won the stage with Latvala 6.6 seconds back and Mikko Hirvonen another 4.2 seconds back in the third.
Loeb staged a comeback winning stages 9, 10, 11, 14 and 15. Ogier won stage 13 and took the lead from Latvala by 11.2 seconds and on stage 14 Latvala threw it away after hitting an object and breaking a front shock which dropped him back to eighth. At the end of 14 stages Solberg was 21 seconds off of Ogier in the lead and was looking good to overtake him on the final day and get his first win since the Factory Subaru team pulled out of the WRC. However the infamous Mr. Murphy had other plans. Solberg, now a privateer racing a Citroen DS3 rented from the factory lost his power steering on the final stage of the day which cost him a minute and put him out of contention.
At the end of day two Ogier now had the lead with 43 seconds over Hirvonen and 47 seconds on his teammate Loeb. With only 36 miles left on day three and 29 miles of it on a single stage Ogier was in the catbird seat and only had to drive a conservative pace on the final day to claim victory.
The first stage of day three, special stage 16 – Ascochinga, was one of the longest of the year at 29 miles. The stage is notoriously difficult as described by Solberg’s co driver Chris Patterson. “What a monster stage and what a monster of a day really. It’s two stages from the past which are joined together by a new section about three kilometres long with one tight hairpin left junction on it, which we expect to be full of spectators. The two stages were always traditionally incredibly difficult. We have to be very careful about tyre wear because we’ve got one set of tyres for the whole day. Okay they’re not long stages but we still have to have a set of new tyres for the Power Stage. You have to be clever and think about the tyres”
Ogier was looking good on Stage 16 but near the end of the stage he cut too tight on the inside of a corner and rolled his car causing significant damage to the front end and cutting his lead down to just 21 seconds over new second place driver Loeb. Ogier lost power steering as a result of the roll which would give him a major fight in the final stages with all the tight turns and Loeb breathing down his neck.
Stage 17 Cabalango I was a high speed stage just under 2.5 miles long that featured some large jumps, a water crossing and thousands of spectators who camped out to watch the morning’s action. With a repaired car Latvala took the win by 0.8 seconds over Loeb and Ogier was 9.5 seconds off the leader battling his damaged car.
Stage 18 took the drivers back to the center of Carlos Paz for another run on the super special stage. Solberg let it all hang out and took the win by 0.6 seconds over Loeb. Ogier still held the lead over Loeb after the stage but it was now down to just 3.3 seconds with one stage to go as the drivers would take another run on Cabalango.
Solberg scored another stage win on Cabalango II, a half second in front of Hirvonen and Loeb. Ogier lost 11.1 seconds to Solberg which put Loeb over to the top giving him the overall victory on the final stage. Hirvonen’s time boosted him into second overall 2.4 seconds back and Ogier was able to hold on to third overall 7.3 behind Loeb. Loeb commented on the tough weekend after securing the win. ” after our penalty when we saw the rhythm of all the drivers because we were all fighting the same at the stages I believed that it would not be possible to try to get a victory. So my target was to try to catch the ones in front; it was Mikko at this time and I tried to push as hard as possible from Friday midday to now and I’m really happy to have done this because we won by only two seconds so all the effort we have done yesterday, pushing on the limit all the time, has been paid today. It’s a great victory.”
Cabalango II was also the Power Stage of the rally, a new element for the 2011 season where the top three drivers are awarded world championship points (3-2-1) towards the year end standings. Solberg’s win gave him a welcome boost in the points standings.
Cabalango I was also a significant stage for American rally fans as Ken Block had his best stage finish ever, taking fifth overall just 3.5 seconds off of Latvala. Block spoke about the rally at the finish
“I’ve loved being down here for WRC Argentina. If it wasn’t for suffering yet another mechanical issue on Saturday, I would have been on pace to score my first points of the season. So, missing out on that sucks. It wasn’t all bad though, on Sunday I took 5th on-stage for SS17, which is a personal best for me in the WRC. I’m definitely stoked about that. Plus the fans are absolutely wild and the stages have been incredible.” This was Block’s first rally since crashing out in spectacular fashion on the shakedown stage in Portugal in March. Block suffered a gearbox failure on Saturday and was not able to drive the afternoon stages. While the mechanical failure took him out of the top ten and a chance to score driver points by completing the rally he did score constructor points for the Monster World Rally Team for the third time this season. Block will return to the WRC at Rally Deutschland, an all pavement event August 18th.
This year’s running of Rally Argentina was Block’s first time and despite a mixed bag of results in the WRC he had a huge fan base on site before the rally started. Everywhere Block went he was mobbed by fans and he clearly appreciated the support. The way Block handles his adversity is also impressive. At the end of Saturday’s racing, Solberg sat in his car shielded by members of his crew after a bad stage. Block, who had a far worse day (he DNFed three stages) instead set up an impromptu fan session in the service park signing and giving away hundreds of posters to the eager crowd.
At the conclusion of Rally Argentina Loeb holds the points lead with 126, Hirvonen is second with 113 and Ogier is third with 96. Citroen holds the lead in the constructor standings with 207 with the factory Abu Dhabi Ford effort in second with 174. The Monster team is now ninth out of eleven with 8 points.
The Argentine people are extremely passionate about motorsports and are big fans of the American drivers. When speaking with locals over the past week, every time it comes up that I am from the U.S. invariably the people mention Block, Gordon and Miller with huge smiles on their faces. It was a pleasure to cover this event and meet so many great people from South America.
The World Rally Championship continues on June 16th with the Acropolis Rally of Greece.
Complete final results at http://www.wrc.com/results/2011/championship-standings/manufacturers/