- Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville looks to defend slender lead on first gravel round of season
- Last year’s WRC2 winner Pontus Tidemand aims to snatch series lead on México return
LEÓN (México): The 15th Rally Guanajuato México gets underway with a spectacular special stage through the narrow streets and silver mining tunnels in downtown Guanajuato on Thursday evening.
The traditional first gravel round of the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) has carved its own specialised niche in the calendar and is renowned for its demanding special stages – often at higher altitude than at any other round of the series – slick organisation, thousands of spectators and some of the most spectacular television footage ever aired from the WRC.
Belgian Thierry Neuville starts the event in a strong position. He has a 10-point lead over five-time World Champion Sébastien Ogier in the Drivers’ Championship and his Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team leads the Manufacturers’ category by a single point from Toyota GAZOO Racing.
Four of the 11 World Rally Car drivers are previous winners in México. Ogier has three wins to his name with Volkswagen, while Finland’s Jari-Matti Latvala now drives for Toyota and also achieved a win with the German team in 2016. A returning nine-time WRC champion Sébastien Loeb has won here on six occasions and the Frenchman’s Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team colleague Kris Meeke was triumphant last March, despite a spectacular excursion into a spectator car park on the final stage.
Meeke said: “We have made further improvements to the C3 WRC since Catalunya, so I have high hopes that we can be among the front-runners. A lot of our rivals had reliability issues because of the altitude last year and are bound to be a lot better prepared this time. I like the event. The full power of the car is not available and you have to be as clean as possible in your driving. I’m pleased with the recent tests. We have made more progress, especially on the dampers in conjunction with Öhlins. This was Sébastien’s (Loeb) impression too.”
The 2018 season promises to be the closest for many years and each of the four manufacturers’ teams realise the importance of conquering the Mexican gravel stages. The M-Sport Ford World Rally Team suffered a disappointing setback in Sweden last month and Ogier would dearly love to get the better of Loeb in what promises to be an intriguing contest between the two Frenchmen, who have won the last 14 WRC titles between them!
While M-Sport give Teemu Suninen his World Rally Car debut alongside Elfyn Evans and Ogier, Hyundai have opted for the sheer pace and guile of Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen and the experience of Dani Sordo to support series leader Neuville.
Ott Tanak has been impressive in México in recent seasons, but made headlines for all the wrong reasons back in 2015 when he left the stage and crashed his Ford into a lake. The Estonian’s switch to Toyota has already netted 21 Drivers’ Championship points and he, Latvala and Esapekka Lappi will be hoping to mount a serious challenge for the Japanese manufacturer after overheating issues and a general lack of development for altitude and heat spoiled the team’s Mexican debut in 2017.
WRC2 – wide open in México?
A victory apiece for Czech driver Jan Kopecky and new Japanese sensation Takamoto Katsuta have given them a joint early lead in the WRC2 category after Monte Carlo and Sweden. Neither has made the trip to North America and that has left the door wide open for the likes of Sweden’s Pontus Tidemand and Finland’s Jari Huttunen to close the gap and potentially snatch the category lead in their respective factory-supported Škoda Fabia R5 and Hyundai i20 R5.
Competition is likely to be intense, but Tidemand claimed victory in León on his debut 12 months ago after an early duel with Eric Camilli and starts as the slight favourite to win again.
Tidemand said: “This is a rally that has everything, fast sections, narrow and technical hairpins and corners. The climb up the mountains is rough on the engines and, if you make a mistake, you quickly notice that it costs more than usual.We aim to repeat last year’s victory. I feel the event suits me well.”
Škoda Motorsport’s young Finn Kalle Rovanperä, Russia’s Radik Shaymiev, Bolivian rookie Marquito Bulacia and Spain’s Nil Solans will have other ideas, while the likes of England’s Gus Greensmith and Chile’s Pedro Heller will be hoping for useful points-scoring finishes. A pre-rally testing fire sidelined Benito Guerra’s Škoda on Monday.
México’s Ricardo Trivino and American Dave Wallingford round off the R5 entry.
Mexican drivers dominate lower reaches of the entry list in the Non-Priority driver category and Francisco Name and Ricardo Cordero face a Group N duel in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Xs. Miguel-Antonio Cerve, Julian Salazar, Jorge Hernandez and Oscar Balsa round off the local contingent and there are further entries for Lithuania’s Deividas Jocius, Canada’s Jason Bailey and a Ford Fiesta R2 entry for Great Britain’s Tom Williams.
Tomorrow (Thursday), marks the start of the event at the end of a hectic day’s schedule that gets underway with the customary 5.31km shakedown stage for teams from 09.00hrs at Llano Grande, the stage finish located just 15.85km from Rally Campus León.
After putting the final touches to their gravel stage set-up at the shakedown, several of the leading drivers will attend the pre-event press conference (13.30hrs), prior to a pre-start ceremony in the nearby town of Silao.
The opening Monster Street Stage of 2.53km has been modified and gets the competitive action underway along the narrow, slippery roads and through the silver mining tunnels of the historic UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ceremonial start follows in the centre of Guanajuato, adjacent to Teatro Juárez and the renowned Alhondiga de Granaditas museum.
Rally Guanajuato México 2018 – leading starters:
- Sébastien Ogier (FRA)/Julien Ingrassia (FRA) Ford Fiesta WRC
- Elfyn Evans (GBR)/Daniel Barritt (GBR) Ford Fiesta WRC
- Teemu Suninen (FIN)/Mikko Markkula (FIN) Ford Fiesta WRC
- Andreas Mikkelsen (NOR)/Anders Jaeger-Synnevaag (NOR) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
- Thierry Neuville (BEL)/Nicolas Gilsoul (BEL) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
- Dani Sordo (ESP)/Carlos del Barrio (ESP) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
- Jari-Matti Latvala (FIN)/Miikka Anttila (FIN) Toyota Yaris WRC
- Ott Tanak (EST)/Martin Järveoja (EST) Toyota Yaris WRC
- Esapekka Lappi (FIN)/Janne Ferm (FIN) Toyota Yaris WRC
- Kris Meeke (GBR)/Paul Nagle (IRL) Citroën C3 WRC
- Sébastien Loeb (FRA)/Daniel Elena (FRA) Citroën C3 WRC
2018 FIA World Rally Championship for Drivers – positions after round 2:
1. Thierry Neuville (BEL) 41pts
2. Sébastien Ogier (FRA) 31pts
3. Jari-Matti Latvala (FIN) 23pts
- Esapekka Lappi (FIN) 23pts
5. Ott Tanak (EST) 21pts
6. Andreas Mikkelsen (NOR) 21pts
7. Craig Breen (IRL) 20pts
- Kris Meeke (GBR) 17pts
9. Hayden Paddon (NZL) 10pts
10. Elfyn Evans (GBR) 8pts, etc
2018 FIA World Rally Championship for Manufacturers – positions after round 2:
1. Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT 54pts
2. Toyota GAZOO Racing WRT 53pts
3. Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT 46pts
- M-Sport Ford WRT 43pts
2018 FIA WRC 2 Championship – positions after round 2:
1. Jan Kopecky (CZE) 25pts
- Takamoto Katsuta (JPN) 25pts
- Eddie Scieserre (ITA) 18pts
3. Pontus Tidemand (SWE) 18pts
- Ole Christian Veiby (NOR) 15pts
- Teemu Suninen (FIN) 15pts
- Guillaume de Mevius (BEL) 12pts
- Mattias Adielsson (SWE) 12pts
- Janne Tuohino (FIN) 10pts
- Jari Huttunen (FIN) 8pts, etc