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There is a special sense of anticipation for Rally Mexico, the third round of the 2018 World Rally Championship. Nine times world champion Sebastien Loeb (44 years old last Monday, Happy Birthday!) is to make the start of a three-event return to the WRC, his first appearance for three years and his first Mexico Rally entry since 2012! The main change in the rally format is that the start will move back from last year’s venue in Mexico City to the traditional location in Guanajuato, where the ceremonial start follows the the semi-subterranean special stage. There has been no temptation to provide ultra-long stages, the longest this year being the El Chocolate stage at 31km.  The rest follows the popular style of previous events. Twenty-eight crews have entered this year, four more than started last year.  There are 11 World Rally Cars, with only two entries from Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT for last year’s winner Kris Meeke and for Sebastien Loeb.  Teemu Suninen again drives the third M-Sport entry, Dani Sordo competes for Hyundai this time instead of Hayden Paddon, and Toyota’s line-up is unchanged. Even further down the field there is a remarkable collection of champion drivers.  Skoda presents a strong challenge in WRC2 with world champion Pontus Tidemand and Kalle Rovanera, their main rival being Hyundai’s trainee driver Jari Huttunen. But M-Sport’s main R5 challenger is prize driver JWRC champion Nil Solans. British Fiesta driver Tom Williams is the only entry in WRC3.  Top Mexican drivers are former PCWRC champion Benito Guerra and reigning FIA Nacam champion Ricardo Trivino. Road positions are especially critical on this event.  Starting lower down the field on the Friday will give a big advantage for Ott Tanak, Esapekka Lappi, Sebastien Loeb and, like last year, for the winner Kris Meeke, as well. The hot conditions and the abrasive nature of the stages presents a special challenge for teams in their choice between hard and soft compounds tyres.  Notable is the preference by the WRC teams for soft compounds, an option made possible by the reduced power outputs of the engines caused by the high altitude of the stages, while other categories prefer hards. Logistics this year present no unusual problems. Normally the registered WRC teams fly their cars into Mexico City and then transport them by road, while R5 teams usually send their cars to the country by sea freight.  Rally Mexico lies in the furthest time zone away from Europe (seven hours behind Central European time), where as usual the results of the rally will not be known till late Sunday evening. It is too early in the season to gauge championship prospects meaningfully.  After the first two rounds, Thierry Neuville leads the drivers’ category by 10 points from Sebastien Ogier, with Latvala and Mikkelsen another eight points further back, while Hyundai Shell Mobis is one point ahead of Toyota Gazoo in the manufacturers’ series. Of the currently top six drivers in the WRC2, only Tidemand is entered, while this event does not count for the Junior series. There have been three different winners in as many years, each driving a different make of car.  Experiences of the event vary widely, even among the registered WRC teams. Lappi has never been here before, Suninen only in a WR2 car, while this is Latvala’s 12th Mexico Rally, only failing to be classified as a finisher on one occasion.

Team by Team

Citroen

Everything went well from a mechanical point in Sweden, especially with Breen’s second place and Ostberg’s performance, despite his very short pre-event experience of the C3 WRC. Post Sweden opinions: running order is “sometimes an advantage, sometimes a disadvantage”. Four days testing in Almeria region at Fondon in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, a location chosen as an available compromise between typical road conditions, altitude and ambient temperatures. Meeke has his Monte Carlo car, Loeb the car driven there by Breen. The decision to only enter two cars was taken for budget reasons. Current 2018 plans: Meeke to do all events, Breen a total of 10, with the remaining three for Loeb, team patron Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi to enter “a few rallies” in addition. Fun fact: both Meeke and Loeb won Rally Mexico the last time they took part: Meeke last year and Loeb in 2012!  

Hyundai

No special problems in Sweden.  Post-Sweden opinions: Ogier used the rules as they stood, M-Sport cannot be blamed.  “The rules are like this and they have to be accepted as they are”. Three days testing near Girona in north eastern Spain, a region selected for surfaces and conditions representative of those in Mexico. The team will run the same three cars as used in Sweden, with Sordo driving the car of Paddon, with a new R5 car (chassis 37) for Huttunen which will be run as usual by Sarrazin Motorsport, but entered by Hyundai Motorsport. Hyundai Motorsport drivers have never won Mexico before, each of the drivers have retired once after a misdemeanour, though Neuville has had three third places and Mikkelsen one. Championship leader Neuville said: “It is a warm event where we must take extra care of the brakes.  Because the engines are down on power, it demands a change of driving style!”  

M-Sport

No technical problems in Sweden, and there was satisfaction with their team decisions at the end of the event.  Post-Sweden opinion: “Clearly drivers who did well at Monte Carlo were at a severe disadvantage with the running order”. This was the first time their 2017 specification cars had not achieved a WRC podium result. Two days testing each for Sebastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans, one for Suninen in Catalan region north of Barcelona, selected principally for representative surface, altitude simulation carried out at Ford Europe’s climatic chamber at Dunton. Same cars again for the WRC team drivers. M-Sport are also running R5 cars for privateers Bulacia (ex-Monte Carlo), Greensmith, Heller (both new) and prize driver Solans (same as Sweden). Good news for Evans, this is expected to be his last rally using an old Volvo recce car before moving to a Focus RS like his teammate Ogier. Strong rally favourite is Ogier: three wins and two seconds in the past five years!  

Toyota

TGR has the most (11 previous times for Latvala) and the least experienced (Lappi, never been before, but made the recce last year) Rally Mexico drivers. Middleman Tanak has never finished on the Mexico podium in his six previous events! The only Toyota winner on this event was Ramon Ferreyros on the pre-WRC Corona Rally America in 2001.  Latvala won the 2016 WRC event at VW. Because the high altitude route takes cars up to 2700 metres, nowadays the highest in the championship, work has been carried out in Japan on a climatic chamber dyno. Following overheating experiences last year, cooling improvements have been carried out in Europe.  It is estimated that up to 20% of the power can be lost at altitude. Gravel tests were carried out in cool conditions in Spain.  It will be Tanak’s first rally with Toyota on gravel. Three old 2017 cars are used: Latvala has his ex-Australia 2017 car, Tanak has Lappi’s car from that event, and Lappi has his 2017 Rally GB car.  The cars have now been re-registered.
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