LEÓN (MÉXICO): Esapekka Lappi and Sébastien Ogier were the stand-out stars of the first leg of Rally Guanajuato México on a day where three of the leading 10 Rally1 drivers hit trouble on the opening El Chocolate special stage.
Lappi and fellow Finn Janne Ferm won four of the six gravel tests to Ogier’s and Vincent Landais’s two and that impressive performance by the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team crew earned them a slender lead of 5.3 seconds to take into the night halt in León.
Lappi said: “I hoped that I could fight at the top but to be leading and to be fighting all the time against Seb was not in my mind to be honest, I was confident that our pace would be good. Probably one of the best days of my career. We did a lot of work between Monte-Carlo and Sweden and we have been searching for the good set-up and that helps.”
Ogier added: “It has been a good day, not so much more we could do except taking risks and that is not the approach I like to take on this rally. I am satisfied. Well done to him (Lappi) for today. We still have some work to do to see if we can find some more pace for tomorrow.”
World Championship leader Ott Tänak started the morning first on the road but suffered turbo issues midway through the opening stage. The subdued Estonian never recovered from that hefty early time loss and accidents for both Pierre Louis Loubet and Jourdain Serderidis on the same El Chocolate stage gave the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team a dismal start to their Méxican gravel challenge.
Behind Lappi and Ogier, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT’s Elfyn Evans and Scott Martin finished the day in a solid third overall, an early challenge from Dani Sordo fading after the Spaniard collected a rear puncture and had to deal with the resultant dust issues inside the Hyundai. Sordo and co-driver Candido Carrera slipped back to sixth place.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe finished the day just 9.7 seconds behind Evans in fourth and had built up a useful cushion over the fifth-placed defending World Champion Kalle Rovanperä and his co-driver Jonne Halttunen. The Finn, like Tänak, struggled with an unfavourable road starting position but should be better placed to attack on Saturday.
Japan’s Takamoto Katsuta lost the rear of his Toyota on the first run through Las Minas, crashed off the track and was not able to continue.
Gus Greensmith made a successful return to the WRC2 discipline and the Briton enjoyed a strong day in his Škoda Fabia to hold an excellent seventh place in the overall rankings and a category lead of 8.5 seconds over his former M-Sport Ford team-mate Adrien Fourmaux.
Greensmith said: “The morning was a bit tricky. The tyres were overheating too much and it was quite rocky. Once I put the hard tyres on, it was okay. It’s a nice lead but it’s not a big lead. Trying to be tidy but it is a just a shame we didn’t have any soft tyres for the super specials because it killed our time. Tyre wear should not be such an issue tomorrow.”
Fourmaux had been coming under pressure from young Oliver Solberg, who was setting good times after an early spin. Cruelly, the Swede sustained a puncture on the last of the gravel stages and it cost him 1min 40sec. Defending WRC2 champions, Emil Lindholm and Reeta Hämäläinen, hold third in their Škoda Fabia Evo.
Paraguay’s Diego Dominguez held a comfortable cushion over Canadian veteran Jason Bailey in the battle for WRC3 points heading to the last stage of the day.
Friday – as it happened
After Thursday evening’s carnival-type atmosphere in Guanajuato, it was down to the serious business of the opening 29.07km of the notorious El Chocolate stage that has been an integral part of the route since 2013 and climbed to 2,666 metres above sea level.
Ott Tänak had the thankless task of opening the road and sweeping through any loose gravel on the racing line. The Estonian knew that he would be suffering from his road position throughout a hot and dry opening loop but was forced to pull to the side of the road with a turbo issue 15.8km into the stage.
The crew lost valuable time and were passed by Rovanperä before restarting in limp mode in a bid to reach the stage finish. They then stopped again to let Neuville through. The WRC leader dropped nearly eight minutes to the defending World Champion on a stage where Lappi set the fastest time and moved into a lead of 1.2 seconds.
Tänak’s issues meant that Rovanperä was forced to act as the road sweeper. Katsuta was suffering from serious dust issues on his 30th birthday, while M-Sport Ford’s misery was compounded when Pierre Louis Loubet smacked a large rock and damaged the front-right of his Ford Puma and Jourdain Serderidis spun and blocked the stage in front of Gus Greensmith in the first WRC2 car. Notional times of 23min 00sec were handed to all the WRC2 crews as a result of the stage being red-flagged for the stoppage.
The Ortega stage climbed slightly higher above sea level than SS3 and ran for 15.71km. The start was delayed as a result of the stoppage on SS3 but Tänak retained stage-opening duties. As a result of the Estonian’s ongoing turbo issue, Rovanperä started the stage five minutes behind and both he and Neuville painfully clouted a large bump in the track at high-speed that hadn’t been there during the making of the recce notes.
Ogier enjoyed a clean run and clocked the fastest time of 8min 27.8sec. He beat Lappi by four-tenths of a second but the Finn retained a 0.8-second lead.
After the stoppage on SS3, the WRC2 runners got their first taste of gravel action. Greensmith posted the target of 8min 58.4sec but the Briton’s former team-mate Adrien Fourmaux was 1.3 seconds quicker. Lindholm set the fastest time but Nikolay Gryazin rolled into retirement and Solberg survived a small spin.
The 13.79km of Las Minas preceded a return to León for a lunchtime regroup and service at the Rally Campus Service Park. Rovanperä completed the loop with no hybrid boost on the Yaris and ceded 7.4 seconds to Neuville.
Evans consolidated third with the fourth quickest time behind the leading duo of Lappi and Ogier. The Finn managed to pip the eight-time World Champion by 0.6 seconds and headed back to service with a lead of 1.4 seconds. Katsuta lost the rear of the car at speed, spun and left the track down a banking. The Toyota driver was too far off the track to continue. Solberg won the stage in WRC2 but Lindholm held a three-second lead.
The three gravel stages were repeated in the afternoon, although this would be a first competitive pass through El Chocolate for the non-Rally1 crews after the morning’s stoppage. Tänak was back on full throttle with a repaired Puma and carded the target time of 22min 23.1sec.
Evans managed to fend off Sordo to retain third but Lappi and Ogier were embroiled in a terrific tussle for the lead. The Finn again managed to match his illustrious French rival and extended his advantage to 2.2 seconds with the quickest time. A fastest time for Greensmith enabled the Briton to overhaul Lindholm and snatch the WRC2 lead. Fourmaux moved up to second.
There was no respite in the intensity of the schedule and the re-run of Ortega was held in much higher temperatures than the morning’s pass. A cautious Tänak was still losing further time carrying out cleaning duties and Neuville strengthened his hold on fifth place by beating Rovanperä again.
Evans maintained third overall, as Ogier began to eat into Lappi’s lead. The Frenchman was quickest on the stage for a second time, knocking 6.9 seconds off his morning’s run, and he trimmed Lappi’s lead to just 0.3 seconds.
Sordo clouted the rear of the car, damaged a wheel and dropped one minute after driving the stage with the Hyundai i20’s cockpit choked in dust. He slipped to sixth overall – his issues lifting Neuville and Rovanperä into fourth and fifth. Greensmith increased his WRC2 lead to 5.8 seconds on a stage where Solberg was quickest and moved to within 0.7 seconds of Fourmaux.
Las Minas 2 was the last gravel test of the day. Neuville increased his lead over Rovanperä to 15.7 seconds, despite complaining of a possible rear damper issue and an ill-handing car. Lappi was in scintillating form and the Finn carded yet another fastest time to complete the gravel stages with a lead of 3.4 seconds. Greensmith’s WRC2 lead over Fourmaux grew to 10.8 seconds. Solberg drove to the stage finish on a puncture tyre and the wheel rim and Lindholm stopped briefly in the stage.
The first of four passes through the 3.53km of the Las Dunas stage used gravel roads in a nearby quarry. Neuville trimmed Evans’s grip on third to 10.2 seconds and Lappi threw caution to the wind. He beat Ogier by 3.5 seconds and his lead increased to 6.9. Solberg was third and quickest in WRC2, but Greensmith retained a lead over Fourmaux of 8.8 seconds.
That left a short 1.30km run through the Distrito León MX SSS to close off a thrilling day. Sordo snatched the stage win but Lappi managed to keep a lead of 5.3 seconds to take into the night halt.
Saturday’s action is centred around the area to the north and east of León in the Sierra de Lobos mountains and is organised around two loops of three gravel stages and three super specials.
The 14.82km of Ibarrilla gets proceedings underway at 08.13hrs and is quickly followed by the El Mosquito (22.56km) special from 09.04hrs. After a refuelling stop, Derramadero (21.70km – 10.05hrs) precedes a return to the Las Dunas quarry stage at 11.13hrs. The three gravel tests are repeated at 14.06hrs, 14.59hrs and 16.05hrs.
Drivers then face a third run through Las Dunas (17.18hrs) and a second visit to the Distrito León MX SSS, which runs under the Rock & Rally name and will again feature numerous additional attractions for spectators, including live music and entertainment.
2023 Rally Guanajuato México – positions after SS10:
- Esapekka Lappi (FIN)/Janne Ferm (FIN) Hyundai i20 N Rally1 1hr 25min 12.0sec
- Sébastien Ogier (FRA)/Vincent Landais (FRA) Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 1hr 25min 17.3sec
- Elfyn Evans (GBR)/Scott Martin (GBR) Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 1hr 25min 42.1sec
- Thierry Neuville (BEL)/Martijn Wydaeghe (BEL) Hyundai i20 N Rally1 1hr 25min 51.8sec
- Kalle Rovanperä (FIN)/Jonne Halttunen (FIN) Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 1hr 26min 11.7sec
- Dani Sordo (ESP)/Candido Carrera (ESP) Hyundai i20 N Rally1 1hr 26min 39.2sec
- Gus Greensmith (GBR)/Jonas Andersson (SWE) Škoda Fabia RS 1hr 29min 02.1sec
- Adrien Fourmaux (FRA)/Alexandre Coria (FRA) Ford Fiesta MkII 1hr 29min 10.6sec
- Emil Lindholm (FIN)/Reeta Hämäläinen (FIN) Škoda Fabia Evo 1hr 29min 28.5sec
- Kajetan Kajetanowicz (POL)/Maciej Szczepaniak (POL) Škoda Fabia Evo 1hr 30min 05.1sec
- Oliver Solberg (SWE)/Elliott Edmondson (GBR) Škoda Fabia RS 1hr 30min 43.3sec
SS1-SS2 Ott Tänak
SS3-SS10 Esapekka Lappi
SS1 Ott Tänak
SS2 Ott Tänak
SS3 Esapekka Lappi
SS4 Sébastien Ogier
SS5 Esapekka Lappi
SS6 Esapekka Lappi
SS7 Sébastien Ogier
SS8 Esapekka Lappi
SS9 Esapekka Lappi
SS10 Dani Sordo