Altitude high but stakes higher for Hirvonen

BP Ford Abu Dhabi drivers are in the lead but they will shoulder less-advantageous starting positions at the arduous Rally Mexico.

For the BP Ford Abu Dhabi pair of Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala, last month's opening World Rally Championship (WRC) fixture in Sweden was a case of job done, 12 more to go. The victor Hirvonen and third-placed Latvala both triumphed in personal battles against their Citroen adversaries; the six-time world champion Sebastien Loeb finished second and his teammate Dani Sordo was off the podium in fourth.

With points, however, come penalties, and the Ford pair will shoulder less advantageous starting positions when Rally Mexico - the 13-event WRC calendar's second round - gets under way today. "Leading the championship can have its disadvantages, and I now run first on the road for the opening gravel rally of the season," said Finland's Hirvonen, who flew to the rally's base in Leon a week ago to acclimatise to the high altitude and the eight-hour time difference.

"My rivals have better road positions than me so it will be difficult, but I'll still try to find a way to challenge for the win. "I'm not underestimating the difficulties, but I wouldn't swap my win in Sweden for a better start seeding." That chief rival, inevitably, is Loeb. The Frenchman, who suffered an uncharacteristic dip in form midway through last season, beat Hirvonen to the 2009 drivers' title by a single point. He is eager to avoid similar pressures this time around.

"We can't really say that the championship's got off to a bad start with second place, but I'm not going to let Mikko open up a gap in the overall classification," Loeb vowed. With the WRC's top two drivers engaging in a title tussle again, Loeb summed up the pair's dominance when he said a fourth consecutive Mexico victory would not necessarily put him clear in the standings. "A win would put us on level pegging," he added, before calming expectations. "I'm not going to make any predictions as we haven't raced in such conditions [gravel] for six months."

Having enjoyed his best start to a Ford season, Latvala, 23, is relishing the trans-Atlantic trip. "I've not had as good a start to a season for five years and it's a completely different sensation to go to Mexico feeling relaxed and under less pressure," said the team's No 2. With the Hirvonen-Loeb drivers' title race likely to dominate proceedings, Sordo's pursuit of Latvala will provide an intriguing sub-plot.

Ultimately, whichever driver performs better throughout the year can expect to seal his team a manufacturers' crown - a point not lost on the Spaniard. "I'll have the advantage of starting fourth on the first day, so the line's going to be well swept by the first three," explained Sordo. "I hold all the aces and I won't forget the job I've been given: to score maximum points for the manufacturers' title. Our rivals got off to a better start in Sweden, but we're determined to catch them."

On Hirvonen's 100th WRC start, the Mexico route - perhaps more so than his starting road position - could pose the biggest hurdle to the challenger scoring a second successive victory. A compact series of high-speed gravel stages through the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato mountains and the plains around the cities of Guanajuato, Leon and Silao, have been complemented with tyre-testing asphalt sections. The high altitude also forces the WRC engines to struggle in the thinner air and cars generally suffer a drop in power of around 20 per cent.

It is not, however, something spectators lining the mountain ravines tend to notice. The WRC's "fantastic four" - embedded in individual and team jousts for supremacy - simply hurtle by. @Email:emegson@thenational.ae

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