The promise and the undeniable threat posed by both the Citroen team and Kris Meeke was always there, it just took the gravel of Rally Mexico to bring it all together! What followed must rank as one of the Northern Irishman’s finest WRC results to date: he made full use of his advantageous road order to carve out a handy lead, then dodged the constant threat from boulders, sheer drops and ruts, even pulling out further time against a resurgent Sebastian Ogier on Saturday and Sunday. He won the event by 13.8s, in the process giving us our third different winner in as many events and further underscoring 2017’s potential to be true epoch in the WRC’s recent history.
The arrival of the WRC in Mexico was welcomed by all, not least because (thin mountain air aside) it represented the first ‘normal’ event of the season, something the likes of Citroen dearly needed after the relative trauma of the Monte and Sweden. The trip across the Atlantic brought nothing but pain for M-Sport‘s Elfyn Evans though, the Welshman handed a daunting 5 minute penalty for an engine change after Shakedown. It was a galling penalty and one which ensured Evans was on the back foot from the off, yet it didn’t prevent him from fighting hard all weekend – more on him later.
The rally kicked off in the spectacular surroundings of Mexico City, specifically the two part Zocalo stage run around the city’s central square, and one ultimately claimed for Toyota by Juho Hänninen. The Finn was in real need of a good result after losing arguments with trees in both the opening rounds, and his combined time on the slippy but drying city streets was 3m 37.2s, achieved despite visibly suffering from the flu! He led the way from Ott Tanak, Meeke, Thierry Neuville, Hayden Paddon, Ogier and Dani Sordo, with championship leader Jari-Matti Latvala back in eighth.
Friday morning was supposed to kick off with a run through the spectacular (not to mention vertiginous) El Chocolate stage, but a huge traffic smash wound up blocking the road between the service park in Leon and Mexico City, forcing the organisers to cancel the morning loop. Such is the nature of rallying and the need to navigate public roads to traverse the 400km distance between remote mountain stages, but it certainly caused a fair amount of consternation in parc ferme. The re-shuffle of the rally saw Friday shortened to just one run through El Chocolate and Las Minas, the former highest stage of the rally and also a bit of a monster at 55km in length.
Hyundai were in need of some good news after Neuville’s somewhat embarrassing rolls from the lead of both the opening rallies, yet what they actually got was something of a mixed bag. Neuville went into the first stage with a set of full soft tyres and this proved to be poor decision – he was significantly slower than team mate Paddon despite the Kiwi being in a lower engine mode. Sordo faired rather better by putting in a charge on the final stage of the day, only to be outdone by a resurgent Neuville, the Belgian actually fastest through Las Minas by a full 6 seconds. All three Hyundais were brought to earth with a bump late on Friday though, with fuel flow issues robbing Paddon, Neuville and Sordo of hard won seconds.
Hyundai weren’t alone in struggling on Friday’s curtailed running, with both Toyota and Ford hitting trouble. This is to be expected of course (it’s all too easy to forget that these are still brand new, largely unproven machines built to an exacting spec), but the fact that Yarises of Latvala and Hänninen, and the Fiestas of Tanak and Evans all experienced an overheating warning of some kind points to the sheer difficulty associated with motorsport at this altitude, as much as 2700m at some points.
Teams were forced to switch to ‘Road Mode’ in order to preserve the health of their engines and brakes, with the Toyotas appearing particularly hampered: Latvala was also first on the road and therefore tasked with being a glorified gravel-plow throughout Friday, while his team mate’s overheating car and personal battle with the flu rather blunted his charge. Both ended the day well down the order.
As for Meeke, well he powered on, seemingly oblivious to the mechanical maladies befalling his competitors and no doubt helped by starting well down the order. The C3 WRC finally looked to be functioning correctly, and Meeke had pulled out a 20.9 lead by the end of the day.
It was clear that a huge amount of Citroen’s 2016 test programme was dedicated to gravel mileage, and on Saturday it began to pay dividends. Much has been written about Meeke’s ability to absorb the pressure of leading a WRC round over the last few years but here he was supreme, trading times with Ogier and Sordo in the morning loop, before plumping for hard, long lasting tyres in order to set fastest stage times in the afternoon. He was no doubt aided by Ogier’s desire to bank points and by an uncharacteristic spin from the Frenchman on El Brinco, but it was hard to escape the feeling that Meeke had the measure of the event and his opposition.
M-Sport’s rally improved as the day went on. Evans continued his ferocious charge up the table by setting a smattering of fastest stage times, while team mate Tanak passed the sickly Hänninen for fourth before switching focus to the Hyundai of Neuville, and all while trying not to overtax his Fiesta’s engine. He was fastest through El Brinco’s second running on Saturday afternoon.
Sordo’s fuel issue late on Friday left him with a 10 minute penalty (albeit one that was appealed and subsequently overturned), frustration he vented by winning the opening stage on Saturday by a handy 3.2 seconds, while Paddon spent the day working his way back up the order, something he managed despite clouting a rock on the morning loop. Neuville held station in 3rd by doing just enough to keep the M-Sport Fords at bay. Latvala ended up hitting the very same rock as Paddon and met with the same result, a slow puncture! His team mate was fighting a desperate rear guard action against the WRC field and his the virus which was causing him so much discomfort, but it wasn’t enough to halt his slide down the top 10.
Ogier has always been the kind of driver to mix flat out, balls-to-the-wall speed with a cool head, so it wasn’t at all surprising that the Frenchman was already driving tactically come Sunday morning, well aware that second in Mexico would promote him to first in the title race. It meant that most considered Rally Mexico to have sprung the last of its surprises by the time the action got underway on Sunday morning, with the majority of the top 10 positions, save for some potential for place swapping between the Toyotas and the Hyundais of course, looking to have been cemented.
Then, mere metres from the end of the Power Stage, came the reminder of just how unpredictable World Rallying can be! Meeke was on a flyer, 40 seconds to the good and clearly keen to end the rally in suitably imperious form, yet he was caught out under braking for a tightening right hand bend. The C3 slid wide and Meeke was faced with an unenviable dilemma: fight it and attempt to get back on line before hitting the imposing looking bushes looming over him, or jink left and take his chances in the unknown. He plumped for the latter, powering into a spectator car park, lightly tapping a parked VW Passat and proceeding to pull a last minute U-turn through some more parked cars, before finally finding his way back onto the stage itself.
Front-left puncture aside, the C3 had escaped unscathed, allowing Meeke to complete the last few corners and claim victory. The Dungannon man was visibly shaken at the end of the stage, well aware of how close he had come to undoing all his good work, and it took some gentle coaxing from co-driver Paul Nagle to finally get him to stand atop the car to begin celebrating.
Ogier was 13.8 seconds behind, not perhaps the result he would have wanted at the start of the event, but a valuable finish nonetheless. It’s a result that puts him first overall in the title race and helps M-Sport cement its grip on the Constructors’ title (pending the FIA investigation into his gearbox of course), as does Tanak’s fourth spot. Evans showed his raw pace with a fighting drive to ninth overall, but it’s hard not to wonder quite how much further up he would have been had it not been for his post-Shakedown engine maladies.
Hyundai had a wholly mixed weekend, with Neuville’s undoubted pace helping him to third and his first points of the season, but the team will no doubt be concerned about the trio of fuel filter gremlins that hampered their rally on Friday evening. Both Paddon and Sordo found their form as the event progressed and eventually finished in fifth and eighth respectively, but the i20 WRC has already proven to be one of the fastest cars out there and the team will have expected more from the first gravel event of the season.
Mexico brought Toyota back to earth with a bump. The Yaris was shown to be particularly susceptible to high altitude running and associated cooling issues on Friday, forcing Latvala to switch to a less strenuous engine mode which was further compounded by having to run first on the road. He finished the event in sixth overall, one position ahead of Hänninen.
The teams might not all have enjoyed it, but Rally Mexico delivered us our third different winner in as many events, and it would take a brave individual to bet against the likes of Neuville and Tanak adding to that as the season progresses.
The WRC circus pitches up in the middle of the Mediterranean next, with Rally Corsica scheduled for the 7-9 of April.