2018 Rally Guanajuato Mexico: Preview – The King is Back – Long Live the King


WRC Thierry Neuvillle
Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

That the opening 2 rounds of the 2018 FIA World Rally Championship take place on some of the most specialised surfaces on the calendar mean that Mexico is often viewed as the first ‘proper’ event of the series, the one where the outlying pieces of the championship jigsaw begin to fall into place.

It’s an event that’s delivered more than its fair share of surprises since it joined the series back in 2004, none more so than Kris Meeke’s heart-in-mouth excursion in the dying metres of last year’s event!

Whether or not the 2018 installment will be able to match the high drama of last last year remains to be seen, but make no mistake, its position in the championship marks Mexico out as one of the single most significant rallies the teams will contest.

2018 Rally Mexico

A classic gravel event of the old school, Mexico’s stages are defined by their high altitude, with many winding their way up and down the looming Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato mountain ranges. This means extra pressure on both drivers and cars, with the engines struggling in the thin, oxygen poor air – as anyone who witnessed Toyota’s performance here last year will no doubt attest.

Indeed, engines can shed a good 20% of their peak power output when summiting the highest point in the rally (in fact the entire championship), 2737m.

The reduced power can lead to frayed tempers, while even the smallest of mistakes can be unfairly punished, largely as swiftly accelerating out of trouble is all but impossible!

2018 Rally Mexico – The Stages

Rally Mexico 2017
Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

Based in Leon, the rally has become a firm fan favourite thanks to its stunning scenery, passionate spectators and temperate climate (a good 30 degrees at this time of year), not forgetting its propensity to spring surprises.

Its gravel is quite unlike that found in many of the other loose-surface events on the calendar, with a smooth ‘top soil’ covering unforgiving bedrock, albeit largely free from the stage-encroaching boulders found in places like Argentina and, for those of you with longer memories, Greece.The top layer of gravel tends to wear away as the leg progresses however, exposing the bedrock and forming deep ruts, both of which can cause drivers, tyres and suspension uprights real issues.

The complex nature of the gravel stages, not to mention their ability to degrade dramatically as the day progresses, will mean a mix of both hard and soft compound tyres, the former obviously a safer bet as far as life and resistance to punctures are concerned.

Said gravel will also mean that road order will once again be THE talking point of the rally, with those charged with running first on the road facing an uphill battle (quite literally) to remain in touching distance of the squabble at the top of the table.

The event commences with a short run through the picturesque town of Guanajuato, before moving northwards on Friday morning. Friday’s stages consist of a pair of passes each through Duarte – Derramadero (26.5km), El Chocolate (somewhat neutered yet still a hefty 31.44km) and Ortega (17.23km), before evening blasts around the 2.3km of SS9/SS10, both based in the Leon race circuit.

Saturday sees the stages begin to climb ever upwards, beginning with Guanajuatito (30.97km), before runs through Otates (26.37km) and El Brinco (9.98km) and its famous jump just before the conclusion of the stage. The crews then face a further 2 runs around the race track stage, plus a tour through the 1.1km Leon street stage.

Sunday totals a scant 46.46km of competitive mileage thanks to a solitary run through Alfaro (24.32km), followed by a Las Minas (11.07km) twice, both live and with the latter forming the Power Stage. This gives a total event stage mileage of 344.49km.

2018 Rally Mexico – The Teams

Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team

Rally Mexico 2017 - Hyundai
Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

Thierry Neuville comes to Mexico sitting pretty at the top of the drivers’ title fight thanks to a dogged drive on the Monte and an imperious one in Sweden, yet he’ll struggle to repeat his Scandinavian trick of leading from the off in Mexico.

This will actually be something of an acid test for the Belgian, it being the first time he’s had to lead the championship going into a gravel event (he led away in Germany last year where being first on the road is beneficial), meaning he’ll have to drive with his head to stay in touch and attempt to bag as many points as possible.

Neuville appears to be a far more focussed mentally than at this point last though, willing to drive with one eye firmly fixed on the title – precisely the mindset that helped Sebastien Ogier to the drivers’ gong in 2018. Expect a moderate, precise, and above all intelligent performance from him.

Andreas Mikkelsen lies 6th in the championship charge and remains in the hunt for that illusive, first ever win in Hyundai colours, though his prospects will be dented by a less than ideal starting position for the opening day – though it could certainly be worse.

He’ll be supported by Dani Sordo, the Spaniard back in the fold for the first time since the Monte, and no doubt keen to put his slightly embarrassing exit from that event firmly in the past.

M-Sport Ford World Rally Team

Rally Mexico 2017 - M-Sport
Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

It says much about M-Sport’s surge back to the sharp-end of the WRC that the team considered Sweden to be a poor result, it marking the first time one of its Fiestas had failed to grace the podium in some capacity since the beginning of the ‘new era’ last year.

Malcolm and the boys will therefore be out to make amends, something made that bit easier by the Elfyn Evans’ handy starting position (10th), a legacy of his poor fortune in the opening events. The M-Sport charge will once again be supported by the ever-improving Teemu Suninen, the Finn having driven solidly to 8th last time out in Sweden.

The reigning champion is another driver who’ll have to overcome a less than ideal starting order if he’s to stand a chance of outright victory in Mexico, though it should be noted that Ogier knows precisely what it takes to do well – he’s won here 3 times before, making him the second most successful driver in the event’s history. Ogier also snagged the 2017 championship off of the back of drives from positions such as this, proving once and for all his ability to grind out solid points scores from poor a poor starting order.

Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT

Rally Mexico 2017 - Toyota
Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

Toyota has endured what must count as a frustrating start to its sophomore season, particularly after the unexpected Swedish success of this time last year. Rally Mexico wasn’t exactly a happy hunting ground for the team last year, either, with the high altitude stages exposing some of the Yaris WRC’s weaknesses in stark fashion.

There has been much paddock talk of the changes made to the Yaris in the run up to this year though, with Toyota having even gone so far as to commission a climatic dynamometer, in turn allowing for tests at various simulated altitudes to be made.

Tommi Makinen and the rest of the Toyota crew will therefore be seeking a strong, championship bolstering result, something its strengthened 2018 driver lineup should be capable of delivering.

Jari-Matti Latvala brings an immense amount of experience, while Ott Tanak has already shown to be fully at home, both in his new team and the new surroundings of the Yaris WRC.

The third and final Yaris will once again be driven by the ever-improving force that is Esapekka Lappi, the Finn enjoying an impressively mature start to his first full season in a works seat (brain fade on the Monte Power Stage aside).

The Toyota drivers currently lie 3rd (Latvala), 4th (Lappi) and 5h (Tanak) in the title standings, meaning Jari-Matti in particular will be charged with a certain amount of gravel sweeping come Friday morning.

Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT

Rally Mexico 2017 - Citroen
Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

Even I’m impressed that we’ve managed to get to this point without mentioning that Mexico sees the return of a living legend, the ‘winningest’ driver in WRC history and the only Frenchman able to make Sebastien Ogier’s title haul look modest, Sebastian Loeb.

Loeb’s track record in Mexico is nothing short of immense, his 6 outright wins confirming him as the most successful driver to have contested the rally, something he’ll be out to improve upon this year.Whether or not he’ll be able to add yet another Mexican win to his CV remains to be seen, but his starting position well down the running order certainly won’t do his chances any harm!

Another Citroen driver set to finally reap the benefits of a so-so start to the year is Kris Meeke, leaving the man from Dungannon primed to repeat his victory here last year, albeit hopefully without the last moment histrionics of the Power Stage!

Meeke will nevertheless have to work hard for a win, with the WRC elite all keen to make as good a start to the season proper as possible.

Both Citroen men will hope that the 2018 C3 WRC continues to improve, and Craig Breen’s performance in the Swedish snow will no doubt have brought a glimmer of hope to both. Gravel proved to be the car’s undoing throughout last year though, with Meeke’s Mexican win eventually emerging as the exception rather than the rule, which is why Citroen Sport has conducted so much loose surface testing in the lead up to the event.

Cautious optimism is very much the order of the day then, with a good performance on Mexican gravel enough to put the C3’s 2017 dramas to bed once and for all – no pressure then.

WRC2

Rally Mexico has attracted a healthy crop of WRC2 entries, with the Skoda contingent of Pontus Tidemand and Kalle Rovenpera among the favourites.

The former was roundly beaten to the top step of the podium on his home event by Katsuta Takamoto in a Fiesta R5 last time out, so the Swede will no doubt seek to make hay in the Japanese sensation’s absence.

Team mate Rovenpera is still finding his feet in R5 machinery after the steepest of learning curves in Monte Carlo, but will seek to snag a good result on a surface he tends to excel on.

The WRC2 Champions won’t have it all their own way though, not if Jari Huttunen in the Sarrazin Motorsport Hyundai has anything to do with it, particularly as the i20 R5 has shown improved pace and reliability over the course of the last few rounds.

M-Sport’s R5 programme will trial a refreshed lineup based on youth, with Fiestas for Brit Gus Greensmith and Nil Solans, the Spaniard’s drive a reward for proving all but unbeatable in WRC3 last year.

The scale of the Mexican WRC2 battle is mouthwatering prospect, and one likely to draw almost as much attention as the WRC squabble further up the order.

WRC

1 – Sebastian Ogier – Ford Fiesta WRC
2 – Elfyn Evans – Ford Fiesta WRC
3 – Teemu Suninen – Ford Fiesta WRC
4 – Andreas Mikkelsen – Hyundai i20 WRC
5 – Thierry Neuville – Hyundai i20 WRC
6 – Dani Sordo – Hyundai i20 WRC
7 – Jari-Matti Latvala – Toyota Yaris WRC
8 – Ott Tanak – Toyota Yaris WRC
9 – Esapekka Lappi – Toyota Yaris WRC
10 – Kris Meeke – Citroen C3 WRC
11 – Sébastian Loeb – Citroen C3 WRC

WRC2

1 – Pontus Tidemund – Skoda Fabia R5
2 – Kalle Rovenpera – Skoda Fabia R5
3 – Jari Huttunen – Hyundai i20 R5
4 – Radik Shaymiev – Ford Fiesta R5
5 – Marco Wilkinson Bulacia – Ford Fiesta R5
6 – Nil Solans – Ford Fiesta R5
7 – Gus Greensmith – Ford Fiesta R5
8 – Pedro Heller – Ford Fiesta R5