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FIA World Rally Championship leader BP-Ford journeys to Argentina next week for an event that generates a special ambience unmatched anywhere else during the season.  Rally Argentina (3 - 6 May) is south America's only round in the 16-event series and while the passionate Latin American fans generate a party mood along the route, drivers face probably the most varied roads of the year.

The defending champion makes the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the land of the tango with an eight-point lead in the manufacturers' standings for its Ford Focus RS World Rally Car.  Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen lie second in the drivers' championship, just a single point from the lead, while team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are third.

This sixth round of the 16-rally series never fails to excite.  It is surrounded by colour and the atmosphere crackles as an estimated 1.4 million spectators launch a weekend-long fiesta out in the pampas.  The scenery is stunning, too, ranging from vast expanses of open plains north of the host town of Villa Carlos Paz to the mountains west of the town where rocky ribbons of road wind through a dramatic moon-like landscape.  Add in an opening speed test at Buenos Aires' iconic River Plate soccer stadium and the recipe is there for a south American sizzler.

The Argentine speed tests differ hugely in their characteristics as each leg visits different parts of Cordoba province.  In general the gravel roads are soft and sandy.  They frequently become rutted during the second pass and turn muddy in the wet.  In contrast Sunday morning's El Condor and Giulio Césare mountain tests are narrow and rocky with no margin for error.

Thirty-nine-year-old Grönholm won here in 2003 and has twice finished second in his eight starts.  After losing the championship lead to Sébastien Loeb on the previous round in Portugal, Grönholm knows the need to strike back quickly.  "I want to get back in front of Loeb in the championship," he said.  "I had a good test in Sardinia last week and hopefully we have found a few small things which will increase performance in Argentina.

"He is now championship leader and so he must open the road.  That gives me a little advantage because he must sweep the road clean but the difference between first and second in the start order won't be huge.  The different characteristics of the stages require a different approach but I have done this rally so many times that it doesn't bother me.  The stages near Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, which we drive on Saturday afternoon, are the best.  They are fast and flowing," he added.

River crossings are plentiful, with more than 25 to be negotiated.  "They can be awkward.  It's easy to enter the water too fast and damage the cooling package at the front of the engine.  When you cross a river at speed the force of the water can cause problems but last year we didn't have any difficulties.  It's important to note the depth during the recce and adjust your speed accordingly," said the Finn.

Hirvonen's three starts have yielded a best result of fourth in 2004 and the 26-year-old Finn is a big fan of the rally.  "It's not as technical as the last round in Portugal but there's a greater variety of roads – wide sections, narrow tracks, sandy surfaces, rocky area, big jumps, water crossings.  It's not difficult to manage the changing nature of the stages but it does require some thought," he said.

"There's a tremendous atmosphere on the stages.  You can sense the huge crowds and the side of the roads are lined with people.  On the final day fans are perched high on the rocks that overlook the track.  It's an amazing landscape and it's remarkable how they managed to make a road up there.  

"My test this week went well and we found some small improvements that made the car more precise to drive.  I'm third in the championship and still quite close to Seb and Marcus.  I want to stay as close to them in the battle at the top for as long as possible," he added.

Team News

* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force gravel tyre for the low-wear loose surface roads.  The pattern is relatively compact to ensure a maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the ground for the best possible grip and traction.  The grooves can be hand cut to open them if there is a lot of loose gravel on the road surface or if the tracks become muddy.  The tyres will be available in soft and medium compound rubber.

* Both Grönholm and Hirvonen took part in a successful five-day gravel test in Sardinia which finished on Monday.  Grönholm drove for the first three days with Hirvonen in the seat for the final two days.  The test was partly to confirm set-up specification for Argentina and next month's Rally d'Italia Sardegna and partly to continue testing new parts for the 2007-specification Focus RS WRC, due to make its debut in Finland in August.

* Before leaving for Argentina, Grönholm will oversee the official opening of his new shopping centre in his home village of Inkoo.  The waterside development has eight units, including a restaurant, and a gymnasium.  A BP-Ford display car will be on view and Finnish rally legends Tommi Mäkinen and Markku Alen are also due to attend.

Rally Route

The rally follows a similar format to 2006, visiting the three valleys of Cordoba province, each offering stages of differing character and landscape.  However, the base has moved back to Carlos Paz from Cordoba city.  The big change is a Thursday evening super special stage at Buenos Aires' atmospheric River Plate soccer stadium before cars make a free transit 700km overnight journey back to Carlos Paz.  The first full day visits the Punilla Valley, north of the town, before ending with another super special inside Cordoba's soccer stadium.  The second day, the longest, is a mix of morning stages in the same area before faster roads in the Calamuchita valley to the south.  The final leg is based south-west of Carlos Paz in the Traslasierra mountains.  It comprises two passes over the rocky El Condor and a single run through Giulio Césare, two of the most famous and toughest stages in the championship which peak at 2195m.  A second pass over the Cordoba stadium test ends the action.  Drivers face 22 stages covering 346.55km in a route of 1383.14km.

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