Just three weeks after a sub-zero season opener in the snow-bound forests of Sweden, competitors in the 2011 FIA World Rally Championship will face dirt roads, baking temperatures and power-sapping high altitude when round two starts in Mexico today.

Typical of the extreme conditions faced by teams on the 13-round WRC global tour, the Rally Guanajuato Mexico could hardly have set drivers and teams a bigger challenge to prepare for the three days and three nights of competition that will follow a spectacular ceremonial start tonight in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Guanajuato.

And conditions are likely to be dramatically different again when the WRC circus tackles the fast forestry and shire roads of the New South Wales Coffs Coast for Rally Australia, round 10, on 8-11 September.

As well as hosting the start in Mexico, Guanajuato will be the venue for the first competitive special stage, a 1.5 kilometre test that will run through tunnels and cobbled streets surrounded by high walls.

Despite its status as a gravel event, the rally features a further six asphalt stages, albeit over short distances.

In addition to a 1.33 km street stage close to the indoor service park in Leon, the 1970 and 1986 FIFA World Cup host city’s race circuit will run superspecial spectator stages on Friday and Saturday night.

But the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato mountains will host the bulk of the stage action.

These tests are renowned for their high speeds, but with the surface made up of loose small stones, tyre grip can be at a premium, particularly for drivers seeded at the front of the running order and saddled with sweeping a clean line for their rivals following.

To add to the challenge the stages are peppered with potholes and lined with drainage ditches. Water-splashes provide another hazard.

However, those obstacles are almost trivial compared to the difficulty of running at high altitude. With some stages peaking at 2700 metres above sea level, engines struggle to breathe in the thin air and lose power.

And with less air in the atmosphere, brakes and engines overheat in the high ambient temperatures.

In total, crews will tackle 22 special stages over a competitive distance of 364.87 kms.

Twenty-five entries have been received for the event, which also will be the opening round of the Super 2000 World Rally Championship season.

Frenchman Sebastien Loeb has been touted as favourite for victory in his Citroen Total World Rally Team DS3 WRC, having won in Mexico on the past four occasions,

The eight-time world champion will run sixth on the road on day one in line with his position in the championship standings, the result of a difficult outing in Sweden.
That means he is likely to enjoy a cleaner stage surface than some of the drivers ahead of him.

Mikko Hirvonen starts the event with a seven-point title lead following victory in Sweden aboard the new Ford Fiesta RS WRC.

Opening the road will do Ford’s flying Finn few favours, but he has experience of performing the role and the advantage of starting the event on the back of a dry-weather test.

While Citroen’s pre-event test session in Spain last week was held in damp conditions, the final day of Ford’s test in Portugal was run on dry roads, which could hand Hirvonen an edge.

Ford Abu Dhabi teammate and countryman Jari-Matti Latvala has vowed to put behind him a car-wrecking crash in the Portugal test, while other leading contenders are likely to include Loeb’s teammate Sebastien Ogier, Citroen “privateer” Petter Solberg (Norway) and a formidable Ford contingent comprising Mads Ostberg (Norway), Matthew Wilson (Great Britain), Dennis Kuipers (Netherlands), Federico Villagra (Argentina), Henning Solberg (Norway), Ken Block (United States) and Evgeny Novikov (Russia).

WRC Rally Mexico Shakedown - top ten results

1. SEBASTIEN OGIER (4) 2:51.7
2. PETTER SOLBERG (4) 2:51.9
3. SEBASTIEN LOEB (4) 2:52.9
4. JARI-MATTI LATVALA (4) 2:53.3
5. MADS OSTBERG (5) 2:55.3
6. MIKKO HIRVONEN (4) 2:55.9
8. MATTHEW WILSON (5) 2:56.6
9. EVGENY NOVIKOV (5) 2:59.2
10. KEN BLOCK (4) 3:02.4

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