The World Rally Championship heads back to the Americas and kicks off back-to-back gravel as the series tackles the infamous YPF Rally Argentina.
The only South American round of the season, Rally Argentina is one of the most picturesque and best supported rounds of the championship.
Up to half a million passionate spectators line the stages based around the city of Cordoba, where the lowland pampas meets the Andean foothills.
Featuring contrasting locations such as the moon-like mountainous landscape with rough rocky stages to flat grassland with wide open and fast roads punctuated with spectacular water-splashes.
These stages also ensure that it is the roughest and rockiest rally of the championship with massive boulders lined the sides of the rock to catch out the unwary, while the stages in the pampas region are some of the fastest in the calendar
Yet one mistake at such high speed may result in a spectacular accident as Jari-Matti Latvala found out to his cost last year.
Despite these risks, the event is as much of a hit with the drivers as it is with the fans.
“The spectator presence is what makes Argentina so special and so unique,” said Hyundai’s Hayden Paddon.
“Nowhere else in the world do you go and get over half a million spectators.
“It’s a real party atmosphere.”
Gravel Pace Important for Title Charge
The 2017 WRC season is proving to be one of the most competitive in the series’ history with four different winners from the first four rounds.
Each manufacturer has honours apiece as the series tackles a rally renowned for throwing up unpredictable and remarkable results.
Victory here will be important for the rest of the season as Rally Argentina is the first of five back-to-back gravel rounds of the WRC, ending with Rally Finland in July.
In order to be competitive on the rounds that follow, this means that the teams have to hit the ground running and ensure their cars can master the loose surfaces here.
Out of all of the manufacturers present, the one with the most to prove will be Toyota.
Despite having taken victory of the second round of the season in Sweden and lead driver Jari-Matti Latvala currently laying second in the championship, the pace of the Yaris WRC on gravel is yet unproven.
The team was hampered by the altitude in Mexico, the only gravel round so far in the series, so Argentina will give a better representation of the Yaris’ speed on the loose surface.
A good showing in Argentina will help Latvala’s championship bid, he’s currently 13 points behind championship leader Sébastien Ogier.
But an uncompetitive outing may affect the team’s performance on the rallies that follow.
Tanak: Fifth Different Winner in Five Rounds?
For the past two years, the rally has seen two drivers claim their maiden victories here, Citroen’s Kris Meeke in 2015 and Paddon in 2016 and both drivers will be looking for a good result to help their respective championships.
Meeke and the Citroen won the previous Gravel American round in Mexico and their win in 2015 means they are favourites make it an American double.
After retiring with engine failure while leading the last round in Corsica, Meeke will be hoping for another in order to get back on track with the championship leaders.
More-over the Citroen C3 WRC took its maiden victory on the previous gravel round in Mexico, which features terrain similar to that in Argentina, meaning that Citroen will be right amongst the pace setters on this event.
A victory here would kick-start Paddon’s season which has been one of tragedy and frustration so far.
The New Zealander has struggled to get on terms with the new Hyundai i20 WRC, he currently has a best result of fifth place and sits eighth in the standings.
But a good result on the location of his maiden win will give him a much needed confidence boost.
“I’ve got some very found memories of Argentina so it’s obviously a rally I’ll never forget,” he said.
“While it would be nice to get the taste of champagne again, we head into this rally after some thorough preparation to push hard,” Paddon said.
“We know we can be competitive, but the competition is much closer this year so, as always, we will be giving it a good go.”
However, we could potentially see a third new rally winner in three Rally Argentinas.
Ott Tanak has shown impressive pace throughout the season, being able to match and even beat the pace of his illustrious M-Sport team-mate Sébastien Ogier.
Could Argentina be the location where Tanak claims his maiden win?
He was close to winning twice in 2016 and victory here will not only demonstrates the potential that M-Sport Team Principal Malcolm Wilson always believed he had, it would put him firmly in the championship hunt alongside Ogier.
He is currently fourth in the drivers standings 40 points off the lead after a crash in Corsica.
If either Tanak or Paddon wins it would be the fifth different winner in five rallies, an unheard of occurrence in WRC history.
Ogier himself it looking to increase his 13 point lead with victory on a rally that the four-time World Champion has never won.
Ogier’s season has all been about consistent results, the reigning championship having finished each event on the podium and winning the season opening Rallye Monte Carlo.
Yet he will be hoping that M-Sport has overcome the technical problems which blighted his bid for victory on the Tour de Corse,
Victory there went to Thierry Neuville and the Belgian, with his confidence fully restored after the problems earlier in the season, will be keen to carry on the momentum to make up for his retirements early in the season.
Argentina also sees a return of Mads Ostberg in his JipoCar One Bet run 2017 spec Ford Fiesta WRC car having missed the previous two rounds in Mexico and Corsica.
The Norwegian will be looking to gain more experience of the car while trying to mix it with the factory entries.
Tidemand Hopes to Increase WRC2 Lead with Mikkelsen’s Absence.
For the first time this year there will be no factory Skoda vs M-Sport battle for category honours.
Instead Pontus Tidemand will be up against a several South American Skoda drivers, as he seeks to continue the Czech manufacturer’s remarkable seven round winning streak.
Tidemand will also be hoping to increase his lead in the WRC2 standings as joint-leader Andreas Mikkelsen maybe moving to Hyundai’s WRC Team.
Yet if trouble strikes the Swede, then the likes of Poland’s Hubert Ptaszek and Mexico’s Benito Guerra jr. in their Skodas will likely take advantage.
In the WRC Trophy Valeriy Gorban is the only entrant in his faithful Mini John Cooper Works WRC.