LEÓN (MÉXICO): Ott Tänak, the 2019 World Rally Champion, heads to the start of this weekend’s Rally Guanajuato México back at the top of the Drivers’ Championship after his successful pre-season move from the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team to the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team.
The 35-year-old Estonian finished fifth in Monte-Carlo before a confidence-boosting win in Sweden has given him a three-point lead over the current World Champion Kalle Rovanperä.
Tänak has never won in México – he finished second in 2019 and 2020 – and starting Friday’s gravel stages from first on the road is sure to dampen any realistic expectation he may have of securing a maiden success on an event where he hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons back in 2015. On that historic occasion, the Estonian slipped off the side of the stage and his Ford Fiesta WRC became submerged in a lake. Sterling overnight work by the M-Sport team enabled Ott to actually continue and finish the rally.
The Estonian said: “Testing was my very first time in the Puma Rally1 on gravel and it was important to discover as much as possible. The key challenge for México is the altitude and temperature together. Because of high altitude, power is reduced and this makes the behaviour of the car quite different. The roads are fun and very technical but there are also faster sections with big compressions and jumps. Starting first on the road could be a good place if it rains. But it almost never rains!”
Rovanperä started the season with second and fourth-placed finishes but the young Finn is ideally placed to mount a fierce challenge for a maiden Méxican win with Toyota.
Toyota management feel that the additional 100kW boost of electric power provided by the Rally1 hybrid cars could be particularly valuable on the higher altitude sections, where the route climbs as high as 2,700 metres. One hindrance, however, is the rule that testing outside of Europe is not permitted and, as a result. Toyota carried out a recent test in southern Spain in a bid to defend its 14-point advantage over Hyundai in the FIA WRC Manufacturers’ Championship.
Rovanperä said: “It’s nice to be back on gravel after quite a long time and it’s been especially long since we were last in México. With the high altitude, it’s one of the most specialised gravel rallies on the calendar. I’m quite happy not to be starting first on the road – just one position can make a big difference.”
Thierry Neuville is another driver where the top step of the podium has eluded him thus far. The Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team’s leading driver is six points adrift of Rovanperä after a pair of third places to start the season. The Belgian has three podium finishes on an event where Hyundai Motorsport earned its first WRC podium in 2014 on only its third event after returning to the series in the new World Rally Car era.
“This is a lovely event and is always one of my highlights of the season,” said Neuville. “It is a beautiful country with fantastic roads and there is a lot of support here. It will be important to get the hybrid mapping correct and take advantage of that extra power.”
Elfyn Evans has come frustratingly close to securing the world title on two occasions and the Welshman will be looking to benefit from a more favourable starting position for Friday’s first gravel stages to be held in México since the start of the hybrid era. The second Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 Hybrid driver is fourth in the championship, three points adrift of Neuville.
“Its good to have México back on the calendar,” said Evans. “It’s an event that always provides a bit of a culture shock in terms of the climate compared to the first two rounds and it’s always a big challenge. When the roads are dry and loose then traction is the key and we’ve worked on all areas of the car to try and optimise every aspect and be as ready as we can be.”
Eight-time World Champion Sébastien Ogier makes his second WRC appearance of the season after confirming a stunning 56th career WRC win in Monte-Carlo back in January. The 39-year-old is not taking part in a full programme of events in 2023 but his starting position and the fact that he’s already won on six occasions in México makes the Frenchman a strong favourite in many eyes to reach seventh heaven at the finish in León on Sunday.
The Frenchman said: “When I knew that Rally México was coming back, I straightaway had to mark it in my calendar as an event that would be nice to do again. It’s where everything started for me with my WRC debut in 2008 and there have been good memories and a lot of success here. It will be interesting to see how the hybrid can help against the usual loss of power we feel at high altitude.”
Craig Breen’s place in the Hyundai team is taken by Spanish veteran Dani Sordo on this occasion. The experienced Sordo finished seventh in Monte-Carlo but has a strong record as a gravel specialist and finished second overall in México in 2018.
Sordo said: “This is an amazing event with really nice roads. The fans and spectators have a lot of energy and passion which creates a great atmosphere for rallying. Physically you have to be ready as the lack of oxygen and heat makes it very demanding on the body. Our target is to finish as high as possible and we hope that is near the top. If we get it right, we believe we can in the battle for victory. The podium is a minimum.”
Flying Finn Esapekka Lappi returned to a full programme of events with Hyundai at the start of the season and has rewarded the team with eighth and seventh overall so far. “This is always a special rally,” said Lappi. “The stages are almost the opposite to Sweden. They are a lot slower and very technical. It can also be quite slippery because of the small layer of loose gravel, meaning rear grip is particularly important.”
Takamoto Katsuta drive the fourth of the official Toyotas and the Japanese knows the importance of achieving a good finish on the first gravel event of the year. His season has not gone according to plan so far – sixth in Monte-Carlo was followed by a retirement in Sweden. This will be his first appearance in México with support from the Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC Challenge Programme.
Young Frenchman Pierre-Louis Loubet and Belgian navigator Nicolas Gilsoul crew the second M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid. The team has been reenergised by Tänak’s win in Sweden, although this will be Loubet’s first appearance in México. He is confident after leading a rally for the first time in his career and claiming a maiden WRC stage win.
Both drivers completed a recent two-day test at altitude in Spain in an attempt to simulate the conditions they will face this weekend in the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato mountains. Work was also carried out on chassis and transmission set-up.
Loubet said: “It will be the first time I am competing on a rally outside Europe and that will be a new experience for me. I think my experience of Greece and Sardinia last year will help me.”
2023 FIA World Rally Championship – positions after round 2:
- Ott Tänak (EST) 41pts
- Kalle Rovanperä (FIN) 38pts
- Thierry Neuville (BEL) 32pts
- Elfyn Evans (GBR) 29pts
- Sébastien Ogier (FRA) 26pts
- Craig Breen (IRL) 19pts
- Esapekka Lappi (FIN) 15pts
- Takamoto Katsuta (JPN) 8pts
- Pierre-Louis Loubet (FRA) 8pts
- Dani Sordo (ESP) 6pts
- Oliver Solberg (SWE) 4pts
- Yohan Rossel (FRA) 2pts
- Ole Christien Veiby (NOR) 2pts
- Nikolay Gryazin (ANA) 1pt
- Sami Pajari (FIN) 1pt
2023 FIA Manufacturers’ Championship – positions after round 2:
- Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT = 80pts
- Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT = 66pts
- M-Sport Ford WRT = 51pts