- A returning Loeb wins two stages on way to second place; third for Tänäk
- Pontus Tidemand dominates WRC2 category; Greensmith holds second
LEÓN (México): Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team’s Dani Sordo and Carlos Del Barrio held on to a slender lead of just 7.2 seconds after the opening full day of the 15th Rally Guanajuato México.
The Spanish duo led from the third stage, won two of the day’s nine timed tests and managed their i20 WRC’s tyre wear well over the abrasive gravel tracks on the mountain roads around León and Guanajuato.
The drive of the day undoubtedly came from the nine-time World Champion Sébastien Loeb. The Frenchman belied his three years away from the WRC to record two stage wins and apply late pressure on Sordo for the top place on the podium. The Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team driver led third-placed Toyota GAZOO Racing team’s Ott Tänäk by 3.8 seconds.
Sordo said: “I expected to be in the fight. We were quick here last year. But Sébastien (Loeb) is coming at us really fast.”
Last year’s event winner Kris Meeke led after the first stage of the day and won two stages, but a couple of costly spins on the afternoon loop dropped the Ulsterman to fourth in the second of the C3 WRCs.
There was a tense tussle between Sébastien Ogier, the defending World Champion, and Hyundai’s Andreas Mikkelsen. The Frenchman overcame his running order handicap to hold fifth at the end of the day by just 1.5 seconds.
Finland’s Jari-Matti Latvala was seventh in the second Toyota Yaris until the alternator failed in Guanajuato city centre on the Finn’s journey back from the last of the day’s gravel stages. He had driven the entire Ortega stage with a battery warning light on.
Running first on the road was a miserable experience for current WRC leader Thierry Neuville. A fuel pressure problem and steering issues compounded the Belgian’s woes and he reached the overnight halt in seventh place, trailing leader Sordo by 2min 01.9sec.
Pontus Tidemand dominated the WRC2 category in his Škoda and reached the night halt in eighth overall, a comfortbale 3min 38.3sec in front of Ford’s Gus Greensmith, after Finland’s Kalle Rovanperä retired early on and Jari Huttunen suffered radiator damage.
Tidemand said: “We have a good car, we did a good recce and I have a good co-driver. We need to keep it up like this. It has been running like a clock, very good.”
México’s Ricardo Trivino, Ricardo Cordero and Francisco Name headed to the last two stages of the day in an unofficial 12th, 13th and 14th overall in the combined unofficial classification behind WRC2’s 10th-placed Pedro Heller and WRC rookie Marquito Bulacia in 11th.
Friday – as it happened
Series leader Neuville headed out of morning service to the 26.05km of the Duarte-Derramadero stage, the first gravel special of the WRC season. The later morning start meant that the temperature was already into the low twenties when the Belgian began the timed test ahead of 28 rivals. He lost vital seconds cleaning the stage surface and carded a time of 17min 27.6sec. The disadvantage of his starting position was soon clearly apparent and the Hyundai driver began to tumble behind his rivals. Meeke claimed the stage win and snatched the outright rally lead by 3.8 seconds from a flying Sordo.
The third El Chocolate stage ran for 31.44km and was the test that several of the drivers had flagged as being the toughest of the entire event. Loeb had not tackled the longest stage of this year’s rally in this format before either.
The drive of the morning came from Sordo and the Spaniard carded a sensational time of 24min 05.6sec to snatch the outright lead from Meeke by 9.5 seconds. Evans held third and Loeb climbed to an impressive fourth on his WRC return. Latvala and Lappi both complained of engine overheating issues in the Yaris WRCs – even though Toyota engineers had a ‘road mode’ system in place to prevent serious issues – and Neuville continued to drop time acting as the road sweeper from first on the road.
Škoda Motorsport’s young Finn Kalle Rovanperä was forced to retire from the WRC2 battle with a damaged radiator after he clouted a rock after a jump on stage two. Tidemand led overnight and the Swede extended that lead to 1min 24.4sec over Greensmith after the third stage. Jari Huttunen was third.
The fourth Ortega special climbed to more than 2,700 metres above sea level and marked the highest point of the entire WRC season. Sordo continued his blistering pace with a second fastest time and headed to the street stage in León with a 15.1-second lead over Meeke. Loeb maintained his impressive return with the second fastest time and held third, but a sixth-gear accident cost Elfyn Evans over two and a half minutes and he plummeted to 12th.
The Welshman said: “Sixth gear, we hit a bad bump and the car flew in the air. We tried to gather it, but we had no power and the back end came round and flipped us over quite a few times.”
Tidemand was comfortably in control in WRC2 and taking no risks. He extended his advantage over Greensmith to 2min 13.9sec, but a spin and an earlier flat tyre cost Huttunen further time and the Finn was already 2min 22.5sec adrift in third.
Neuville completed the street stage with a door flapping open and complaining of engine issues. The Belgian suffered the catastrophic loss of 25 seconds in just 1.11km with a loss of fuel pressure, as Lappi stalled, Meeke clouted a couple of potted trees and Suninen clocked the fastest time.
An upbeat Sordo reached service with a lead of 16.6 seconds and admitted that the afternoon’s tyre choice in the heat would be critical. Evans retired from the leg and co-driver Dan Barritt was taken to hospital suffering from suspected concussion.
M-Sport Ford World Rally Team principal Malcolm Wilson said: “The guys can definitely fix the car but, sadly, we won’t be able to continue with Dan’s situation. We will use the time to repair the car. After that, a lot depends on the outcome with Dan. We’ll see what the hospital says.” The team later comfirmed that Evans would not restart on Saturday after his co-driver’s diagnosis was confirmed.
In baking sun and with a slightly better stage surface, Neuville attacked in the re-run of Duarte-Derramadero and shaved 18 seconds off his first stage time, but he still ceded seconds to his rivals on a stage where Meeke was quickest and trimmed Sordo’s lead to 12.3 seconds. The Toyota trio still complained about a lack of power when the engine temperatures climbed, Loeb survived a slight overshoot and Suninen dropped two and a half minutes after sliding wide and clouting the left-rear of his Ford Fiesta. Loeb’s indescretion handed fourth place to Tänäk.
Tyre wear would be critical for those running soft compounds on the second pass through El Chocolate. Sordo drove cautiously to conserve his soft tyres, but a spin for Meeke helped the Spaniard preserve a lead of 14.9 seconds and Meeke slipped to third after Loeb drove superbly to record his first WRC stage win since the 2015 Monte-Carlo Rally.
Only eight World Rally Cars were still running when Lappi left the road after 14.1km and Suninen clouted an armco 1.5km further into the special and was sidelined.
Tidemand began the second loop 2min 15.8sec ahead of Greensmith in WRC2 and completed El Chocolate 3min 14.7sec in front of the Briton. Huttunen succumbed to radiator issues in SS6 and returned to León. Heller and Bulacia moved up to third and fourth.
Neuville lost another 35 seconds and complained of a steering issue at the end of Ortega, but a costly spin for Meeke gifted third place to Tänäk, as Sordo defended his outright lead over Loeb and took an advantage of 7.9 seconds to the two remaining stages in darkness at the León Autodrome. Tänäk and Loeb tied for the fastest time.
Tänäk clocked the outright quickest time in SS9 and shared the honours with Ogier in SS10 but Sordo retained the overall advantage to take into the night halt.
Crews will tackle a further nine special stages and 140.35km of competition on Saturday. The first of two runs through the 30.97km of Guanajuatito gets the action underway and precedes Otates (26.37km) and El Brinco (9.98km).
The three gravel sections are repeated after the lunchtime return to the Campus Service Park. The third and fourth stages at the León Autodrome and a second blast along the street stage in the city bring the day’s action to a close.
Rally Guanajuato México 2018 – positions after SS10:
- Dani Sordo (ESP)/Carlos del Barrio (ESP) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC 1hr 47min 55.4sec
- Sébastien Loeb (FRA)/Daniel Elena (FRA) Citroën C3 WRC 1hr 48min 02.6sec
- Ott Tänäk (EST)/Martin Järveoja (EST) Toyota Yaris WRC 1hr 48min 06.4sec
- Kris Meeke (GBR)/Paul Nagle (IRL) Citroën C3 WRC 1hr 48min 20.4sec
- Sébastien Ogier (FRA)/Julien Ingrassia (FRA) Ford Fiesta WRC 1hr 48min 25.6sec
- Andreas Mikkelsen (NOR)/Anders Jaeger-Synnevaag (NOR) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC1hr 48min 27.1sec
- Thierry Neuville (BEL)/Nicolas Gilsoul (BEL) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC 1hr 49min 57.3sec
- Pontus Tidemand (SWE)/Jonas Andersson (SWE) Škoda Fabia R5 1hr 53min 01.0sec
- Gus Greensmith (GBR)/Craig Parry (GBR) Ford Fiesta R5 1hr 56min 39.3sec
- Pedro Heller (CHL)/Pablo Olmos (ARG) Ford Fiesta R5 2hrs 00min 29.2sec