Defending World Champions, Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia, defied their disadvantageous starting position to turn the heat up on their rivals after nine special stages of the 16th Rally Guanajuato México on Friday evening.
After a dramatic afternoon, which saw both Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team drivers, Andreas Mikkelsen and Dani Sordo, sidelined whilst holding first and second overall, respectively, Ogier overcame one flat tyre to deliver a near-faultless display for Citroën to grab an overnight advantage of 14.8 seconds.
The Frenchman said: “I struggled a lot in the morning. The grip was very low and I expected that the others (behind) were going faster. I was not comfortable in the car. But I am very happy with the afternoon. The grip was better and I was able to manage my pace to keep a good starting position for tomorrow.”
After two shock afternoon retirements, Hyundai’s team principal Andrea Adamo said: “There was an electrical fall-out (Sordo car). I have seen worse things in my life, but we did not come here to see two cars out on the first day…”
It was a leg of mixed fortunes for the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team. Elfyn Evans delivered a solid performance in his Ford Fiesta WRC to hold second place at the night halt, despite this event being the first in México for his co-driver since he sat alongside Matthew Wilson in 2011.
Teemu Suninen, on the other hand, blotted his copybook a short distance into the El Chocolate stage when he spun the car at speed and retired from the leg with front and rear damage. The team later confirmed that damage sustained to the Fiesta was extensive, the Finn duly retired and will take nothing positive away from his miserable Mexican weekend.
Suninen said: “On the middle of the stage, a downhill braking, I hit a stone and the wheel went off and we hit the mountain somewhere and got big damages on the car.”
Kris Meeke was Toyota Gazoo Racing’s shining light on an event where the Yaris WRC has struggled to achieve good results in the last two years. The Ulsterman held third overall at the night halt, 6.3 seconds behind Evans.
A fascinating duel developed between Meeke’s team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala and fellow Finn Esapekka Lappi for fifth. The duo traded stage times, but it was Latvala who sneaked ahead in Ortega 2 to head the Scandinavian challenge. He was promoted to fourth when Sordo was sidelined late on, but then suffered his own reported alternator issues on the road section to the last two stages and retired.
Lappi was overtaken by Ott Tänak and duly reached León in fifth and series leader Tänak and last year’s championship runner-up Thierry Neuville were made to pay for their unfavourable starting positions to hold fourth and sixth, the resigned Belgian not helped by a time-consuming flat tyre on the first stage of the day and a couple of days feeling distinctly under the weather. Early rally leader Andreas Mikkelsen was sidelined on the second pass through El Chocolate.
Bolivia’s Marco Bulacia and Mexican Benito Guerra became embroiled in a fascinating tussle for WRC 2 honours. The 18-year-old held a 0.3-second lead over the local hero at the midday service and went on to finish the leg 9.8 seconds in front of the Mexican in seventh overall.
“We had a few problems with the overheating and we were not able to push in the longer stages,” said Guerra. “But the fight is on now for tomorrow.”
Poland’s Lukasz Pieniazek is the sole WRC 2 Pro entrant and needs to reach the finish and score points to close the gap on his absent rivals. The Ford Fiesta R5 man will need better fortune on Saturday after retiring from leg one with car damage in Ortega 2.
Friday – as it happened
Rising to 2,700 metres above sea level, the notorious El Chocolate stage of 31.57km kicked off the morning’s action and Tänak was given the task of opening the road. Lappi held a lead of just one-tenth of a second over Mikkelsen, as several drivers headed to the opener with minor damage sustained on the Guanajuato stage jump repaired at the morning’s service.
Tänak laid down the gauntlet with a time of 24min 12.0sec, but it was a woeful start for Neuville and the Belgian ceded 22.7 seconds to the Estonian after sustaining a rear left slow puncture avoiding stones in the road.
Mikkelsen stormed into a 2.9-second lead over Ogier, courtesy of the fastest time, but Suninen crashed 13.5km into the special and the Ford Fiesta came to rest hanging off the side of the track with front and rear damage. Sordo held third heading to the second special of the morning at Ortega with Meeke in close attendance. Bulacia snatched a 3.4-second advantage over Guerra in WRC 2.
Ogier reduced Mikkelsen’s grasp on the lead to just seven-tenths of a second with the fastest time in SS3 and Sordo strengthened his grip on third with the runner-up spot on the stage. It was a good special for Guerra as well and the Mexican moved in front of young Bulacia to top the WRC 2 rankings.
The short street stage in León preceded the return to the service park and a second fastest time for Mikkelsen enabled the Hyundai driver to reach the midday break with a lead over Ogier of 1.6 seconds. Sordo, Evans and Meeke rounded off the top five and Bulacia beat Guerra by 0.4 seconds to regain the advantage in WRC 2.
The heat was intense and the stage surfaces sure to be abrasive on the repeat of the morning’s two stages and a first run through Las Minas, which will also act as the Power Stage on Sunday.
Ogier continued to apply the pressure and the Frenchman inherited the lead when Mikkelsen stopped on two occasions and was sidelined with a damaged i20 Coupe WRC. The second quickest time consolidated Sordo’s hold on second, Evans and Meeke moved up to third and fourth and Lappi overtook Latvala to snatch fifth. Bulacia extended his advantage over Guerra to 9.4 seconds in WRC 2.
Ortega 2 was next on the agenda in the insipid heat of a Guanajuato afternoon and Ogier managed to stave off Sordo’s challenge to extend his lead to 4.8 seconds, as Latvala moved back ahead of Lappi when the latter clipped a tree and lost a few vital seconds. Pieniazek stopped in the special with reported front-end damage and Bulacia extended his advantage over Guerra to 10.6 seconds in WRC 2.
Road-sweeping duties in Las Minas failed to prevent Tänak from setting the quickest time on a stage where Ogier collected a puncture and saw his lead at the top trimmed to 10.9 seconds by Evans. But there was drama in the Hyundai camp, as Sordo ground to a halt with reported battery or alternator issues and Neuville appeared to mentally throw in the towel at the end of the stage.
The drama meant that Meeke climbed to third heading to the Autodromo for the final two spectator stages and Latvala and Lappi were promoted to fourth and fifth. It had been another dramatic day under the Mexican sun and it got worse in failing light en route to the Autodromo when Latvala was sidelined with alternator issues.
Crews will tackle two loops of three gravel stages and three spectator specials on Saturday.
Two runs through the Guanajuatito, Otates and El Brinco stages precede two passes through the V-Power Shell stage at the race circuit in León and a second run in the short street stage of 1.11km in León. Otates is the longest timed test of the rally at 32.27km.
2019 Rally Guanajuato México – positions after SS9 (unofficial @ 19.30hrs):
Sébastien Ogier (FRA)/Julien Ingrassia (FRA) Citroën C3 WRC 1hr 18min 33.8sec
Elfyn Evans (GBR)/Scott Martin (GBR) Ford Fiesta WRC 1hr 18min 48.6sec
Kris Meeke (GBR)/Sebastian Marshall (GBR) Toyota Yaris WRC1hr 18min 54.9sec
Ott Tänak (EST)/Martin Järveoja (EST) Toyota Yaris WRC 1hr 19min 10.9sec
Esapekka Lappi (FIN)/Janne Ferm (FIN) Citroën C3 WRC 1hr 19min 12.9sec
Thierry Neuville (BEL)/Nicolas Gilsoul (BEL) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC1hr 19min 34.5sec
Marco Bulacia (BOL)/Fabian Cretu (ARG) Škoda Fabia R5 (WRC 2)1hr 23min 49.9sec
Benito Guerra (MEX)/Jaime Zapata (MEX) Škoda Fabia R5 (WRC 2)1hr 23min 59.7sec