Ford takes its FIA World Rally Championship lead back across the Atlantic Ocean next week for the second fixture in the Americas this month.  Having increased its advantage in the manufacturers' standings on Mexico's gravel roads, BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team journeys to Rally Argentina (27 - 30 March) for an event that generates a special ambience unmatched anywhere else during the season.

The reigning champion holds a 12-point lead with the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car going into this fourth round of the 15-event series.  Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen top the drivers' championship by a single point with team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila in third place ahead of this second consecutive gravel event.

Rally Argentina 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.

The Argentine speed tests differ hugely in their characteristics as the rally visits three different valleys of the province and provide some of the most varied special stages of the season.  In general the roads are soft and sandy, with many river crossings, and frequently become rutted during the second pass.  In contrast, Sunday morning's El Condor and Giulio Césare mountain tests are narrow and rocky with no margin for error.

This will be Hirvonen's fifth Argentine start with third last year the best result for the 27-year-old Finn.  As championship leader he will again be first in the start order on the opening day.  If conditions are dry he is likely to encounter slippery loose gravel on the road surface in the morning, which he will sweep clean for the benefit of those behind.

"I can't change that situation so there's no point in worrying about it," said Hirvonen.  "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.  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.  It's important to be careful at the river crossings.  During the recce we check how deep the water is, and it's not normally a problem for the Focus to tackle them flat out.  But if it rains between the recce and the rally then more care is needed because we don't know how deep the water will be," added Hirvonen.

Fourth place in 2007 matched Latvala's career best result at the time on only his second start in Argentina.  Since then the 22-year-old Finn's progress has been meteoric, stage victories on every loose surface rally dating back to Japan last season a clear indication of the progress that took him to victory in Sweden last month.

"I'm hoping to be able to find the same speed in Argentina that I did in Mexico, so that I can fight with Mikko, Sébastien Loeb and the other leading drivers for a top placing," said Latvala.  "It's 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's a great feeling to have.

"I prefer the second day's stages the most.  They are the fastest, but this rally has a little bit of everything.  A driver needs to be precise and keep the car in a straight line as much as possible.  Because the surface is sandy, ruts develop in the corners and if the car is too sideways it takes a long time to generate the traction to come out of the bend," added Latvala.

Team News

* As part of the sport's new regulations, BP Ford Abu Dhabi will have just one tyre pattern from Pirelli.  The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in hard compound only.  Because anti-deflation mousse is also outlawed this year, the Scorpion includes reinforced sidewalls to offer increased protection against punctures   Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spares.

* Five other Focus RS cars will start the rally.  Gigi Galli / Giovanni Bernacchini and Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud will be nominated for points by the Stobart VK M-Sport team.  Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin will drive a third Stobart car.  Munchi's Ford World Rally Team, competing on home ground, has nominated Federico Villagra / Jorge Pérez Companc and Luis Pérez Companc / José María Volta to score.

* Following Rally Argentina, BP Ford Abu Dhabi will hold a four-day research and development test on gravel in Spain on 14 - 17 April.  Hirvonen will drive for the first two days with Latvala taking over for the last two.

Rally Route

The rally remains faithful to its traditional format of visiting the three valleys of Cordoba province, each of which offers stages of differing character and landscape.  However, several of last year's scheduled opening day tests near La Falda have been dropped and two stages not used for several years have been reintroduced.  Organisers have also scrapped the opening stage in Buenos Aires' River Plate soccer stadium.  The first day heads north from the Carlos Paz base into the Punilla Valley while the second leg, the longest of the event, heads south to the Calamuchita valley for a double pass over faster roads.  Both days end with a new stage at Cordoba's soccer stadium, but without using the main arena.  The final leg covers just 42km south-west of Carlos Paz in the Traslasierra mountains, comprising the rocky El Condor and Giulio Césare tests, two of the most famous and toughest in the championship, which peak at 2195m.  It ends with a super special stage over a different route at the stadium.  Drivers face 21 stages covering 347.91km in a route of 1619.45km.  
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