The challenging icy roads of Monte-Carlo and the not-so-snowy forest trails of Sweden will be a far cry from the baking hot and dusty gravel tracks of this weekend’s Rally Guanajuato México, as the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) resumes in León with the third round of the series, starting on Thursday.
The 17th running of the only North American round of the series has attracted an impressive 38 entries on the latest list published before scrutineering checks.
Competitors from 19 nations will tackle 24 special stages over four days in the Guanajuato region of central Mexico. The entry is made up of nine Priority 1 drivers in World Rally Cars, three WRC2 entries, 10 in WRC3, with the remainder of the field consisting of RC2 and RC5 cars and additional entrants in the NACAM Championship.
The event always throws up its fair share of drama and surprises. Few rally fans will forget Sébastien Loeb trying to make it back to León with three wheels on his Citroën, Ott Tänäk’s incursion into a lake with his Ford Fiesta RS in 2015 or Kris Meeke’s dramatic tour of a stage-side spectator car park on the final Power Stage on his way to the win in 2017.
Several leading WRC drivers did their own version of musical chairs at the end of 2019 and familiar faces will be seen in different teams in México this year. Frenchman Sébastien Ogier returns to León with Toyota Gazoo Racing after missing out on a seventh successive world title last year on his one-year return to the Citroën Total World Rally Team. He will be aiming for a record-equalling sixth victory on the event, a feat earned by fellow countryman Sébastien Loeb between 2006 and 2012.
Ogier has replaced the defending World Champion Ott Tänäk in a team that now comprises Welshman Elfyn Evans and Finnish rookie Harri Rovanperä, following the somewhat surprising pre-season decision by the Japanese manufacturer and team principal Tommi Mäkinen to replace Ulster’s Kris Meeke and Finnish veteran Jari-Matti Latvala.
Mäkinen is understandably upbeat about the season after an encouraging start by his new drivers in Monte-Carlo and Sweden. Evans is currently tied for the championship lead with Thierry Neuville, following his third place in Monte-Carlo and the win in Sweden, Ogier is five points adrift and Rovanperä lies fourth.
“We are in a very good situation” Mäkinen. “It will be a very big difference now we have a fourth new potential title winner competing (Evans). I think this is the best ever, the ideal situation. It’s the same as some new car manufacturer joining to have more drivers at the top.”
Tänak announced a shock move to the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team before the opening round of the new season. But a serious crash in the south of France was a set-back for the Estonian as he attempts to defend his title in an i20 Coupe WRC alongside Monte-Carlo Rally winner Thierry Neuville and the experienced Spaniard Dani Sordo. Neuville has finished third in México on three occasions (2013, 2014 and 2017) and was fourth last March.
Hyundai is determined to retain the Manufacturers’ title that was confirmed for the first time in 2019. The team has been testing the i20 in gravel trim in Spain in the build-up to México and all three drivers were present at a Spanish test, before Tänak and Sordo took part in the Rally Serras de Fafe in Portugal.
The Estonian’s car featured revised aero work at the front and rear during the event in Portugal, while Sordo tackled the event in a current specification model. The Spaniard had won the event in 2019, but neither he nor Ott were eligible for the overall classification on this occasion.
Sordo said: “It is always a pleasure to come to Portugal. We worked together with Ott and the team to find different solutions and a good set-up for the car on gravel. It was really important for us to get into a good rhythm before Rally México.”
Tänak added: “The feeling is good after the test. I feel comfortable with the car. We know there are things we can improve. I started (before the Spain test) with zero knowledge for the car in gravel specification but I am learning all the time.”
Citroën held an impressive record in México, the French team having won eight of the 15 events in the WRC thus far. But management’s decision to pull the plug on the WRC programme was a blow for several drivers.
That decision, and Evans’s move to Toyota, opened the door for a vacancy at the Ford M-Sport World Rally Team and former Citroën number two Esapekka Lappi has joined Teemu Suninen as the regular duo to run the Ford Fiesta WRCs in 2020. Lappi has made a solid start to his campaign with the new team and holds fifth in the Drivers’ Championship.
England’s Gus Greensmith drives the third car on this occasion, as the Blue Oval tries to repeat the success it earned on the event with Ogier in 2018.
The UK-based team conducted a two-day research and development test at Ford’s climatic chamber to perfect engine mapping and performance for higher altitude and increased temperatures – both of which are a feature of Rally México – and this was supplemented by a recent test in Southern Spain. It was also the first opportunity for Lappi to drive the Fiesta on gravel.
The Finn said: “Every time I get behind the wheel, I’m learning more and fine-tuning the set-up to better suit my driving. We worked on a few things in Sweden and continued that at the test. I think the podium has to be our goal in México. It is a tricky and unique event, where you really need to be clean and efficient in your driving. The altitude also means that we run with less power, so small mistakes take longer to recover.”
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