RALLY GUANAJUATO MÉXICO OFFERS FIRST GRAVEL CHALLENGE OF NEW WRC SEASON
· Revised team line-ups head to México as Tänäk and Toyota aim to defend series leads
· Benito Guerra heads local five-car contingent in his WRC 2 Škoda Fabia
LEÓN (México): The FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) makes the transition from the icy forest stages of Sweden to the baking high-altitude gravel trails of México for this weekend’s 16th Rally Guanajuato México, round three of the world’s premier rallying series.
The sinuous gravel tracks take their toll on both cars and drivers and the Méxican event always throws up some of the most exciting stories of the season with its high rate of attrition, power-sapping altitude, crowds of enthusiastic spectators and demanding special stages.
Few followers of the WRC will ever forget Ott Tänäk’s incursion into a deep on-stage lake with his Ford Fiesta RS in 2015 or Kris Meeke’s dramatic tour of a stage-side spectator car park on the final Power Stage on his way to a superb victory in 2017.
This year’s event has attracted 24 entries and 10 drivers from the main four factory teams, in addition to five WRC 2 crews, three further R5 cars, three NR4 entries and a trio of Ford Fiesta R2s. Pre-event testing is banned outside Europe and Spain has been used in the build-up for the professional teams to try and arrive at the optimum set-up for the demanding itinerary that lies ahead.
Several drivers switched teams in the close season: Frenchman Sébastien Ogier returns to León with the Citroën Total World Rally Team after clinching his sixth successive world title last year with the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team. On his way to that solitary success with Ford, Ogier also claimed a first win for the Blue Oval in México since 2004, a fourth individual triumph for the Frenchman.
His team-mate this season at Citroën is the Finn Esapekka Lappi, who switched from Toyota Gazoo Racing at the end of 2018. Lappi will be hoping to kick-start his 2019 season after a non-finish in Monte Carlo and second place in Sweden with his C3 WRC that sees him hold fifth in the championship.
Citroën has a sensational record in México, the French team having won seven of the 14 events in the WRC thus far. The Frenchman won the series opener in Monte Carlo, but suffered a setback in Sweden and trails Tänäk by 16 points in the title race after picking up just two Power Stage points. Both Ogier and Lappi tested for two days recently in the south of Spain and are relishing this week’s challenge.
Toyota arrive in México as the defending Manufacturers’ champions and Tommi Mäkinen’s team have started the new season well with Ott Tänäk’s third place in Monte Carlo and a stunning victory in Sweden giving the Estonian a seven-point lead in the Drivers’ Championship over Thierry Neuville. Toyota has a one-point advantage over Hyundai.
The team struggled with overheating issues on its Méxican debut in 2017 and eighth place for Jari-Matti Latvala was scant reward for their efforts last year. The team chose Spain’s Almeria Province for a recent test session and knows the importance of improvements if they are to maintain the advantage in both championships.
Kris Meeke won the event in 2017 and finished on the last step of the podium in 2018 before being dramatically dropped by Citroën for much of last year’s campaign. The Ulsterman’s commitment and desire was never in question and Mäkinen’s decision to resurrect Meeke’s career alongside Tänäk and Latvala at Toyota was a master stroke. Meeke has a point to prove this season and has started the year in consistent fashion with sixth places in both Monte Carlo and Sweden.
M-Sport Ford may have lost Ogier to Citroën, but Malcolm Wilson’s team – which now runs under new team principal Rich Millener – returns to León as the defending rally winners and both Elfyn Evans and Teemu Suninen will be hoping for further success. The team needs a good result as well: they are currently fourth in the Manufacturers’ series and 28 points adrift of Toyota after two rallies.
Suninen lies 15th in the Drivers’ Championship with a single point but has shown impressive pace so far this season and claimed stage wins and led outright in Sweden before crashing out of contention. The Finn only tackled the Méxican event for the first time in a World Rally Car last year, but he did win the WRC 2 category in 2016. Evans is currently seventh in the Drivers’ Championship with 13 points.
Suninen said: “Sweden and México are very different events, but it would be nice to continue our strong performance. I don’t know if we will be able to challenge the top guys again, but the team have put a lot of hard work into the development of the Fiesta. We drove a one-day test in Spain, although the temperatures were not what we will see this week. It was a good opportunity to get a feel for the car at high altitude on gravel. I’ll have a later starting position, but that’s not always a good thing, as there could be a lot of stones dragged on to the line.”
The Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team missed out on both world titles last year and new team director Andrea Adamo knows that this could be a crunch season for the team. Thierry Neuville was runner-up to Ogier in the 2018 title race, but could only manage sixth overall in México last year. It was a good event for the Korean manufacturer in 2018, however, with Spaniard Dani Sordo finishing second overall and Andreas Mikkelsen reaching the finish in fourth. Neuville has already finished third here on three occasions in 2013, 2014 and 2017.
Sordo is leaving nothing to chance on his Méxican return and his first WRC event of the season. The renowned gravel specialist won the recent Rali Serras de Fate in one of Hyundai’s i20 R5 customer cars, the Spaniard winning 13 of the 14 Portuguese gravel stages. Like Toyota, the team has also tested in Almeria recently and arrives in León a mere point behind Toyota in the Manufacturers’ Championship with Neuville, Mikkelsen and Sordo chomping at the bit to get started.
Sordo said: “It’s a nice rally and I always have a lot of pleasure in México. Not having done the first two rallies of the season will give me a good road position for the Friday stages.”
Benito Guerra was unable to fly the Mexican flag at the event last year after his car was destroyed in a testing fire, but the local star is one of five local drivers on the entry list in his Škoda Fabia R5. Poland’s Lukasz Pieniazek is the sole WRC 2 Priority driver at the helm of an M-Sport Ford Fiesta R5.
Tomorrow (Wednesday), is the second day of stage reconnaissance for competitors before the event gets underway with a ceremonial start and opening super special stage in Guanajuato on Thursday evening.