Defending WRC world champion Sébastien Ogier is back on top of the championship standings thanks to a commanding win on the first non-European rally of the 2014 season in Mexico. His time of 4 hours 27minutes was enough to see off VW teammate and Rally Sweden winner Jari-Matti Latvala who came home second, a sizable 1 minute 12.6 seconds further back. Continuing on from their successes at the back end of 2013, the German team have now clocked up seven rally victories in a row, officially the second longest winning streak in WRC history.
There was finally something to celebrate for the beleaguered Hyundai team, as lead driver Thierry Neuville secured the final podium spot, the Korean outfit’s first since returning to the sport.
All this after a truly action packed rally which had everything from multiple rolls to co-driver calamities and even drove one driver to drink!
The challenge facing teams and drivers in Mexico is most definitely one of stamina and durability. As well as being the highest event of the season, with the route hitting an engine-sapping 2800m above sea level at its peak, this rally also contains some of the longest stages on the calendar including the monstrous 56km Guanajuatito. Although applicable for every WRC round, Mexico more than most typifies the phrase “marathon, not a sprint”.
After having suffered in the chilling conditions at Rally Sweden, the VW number one seemed much more at home on the sun baked gravel tracks of Central America. This had all the hallmarks of a classic Ogier victory; powering himself to the front with raw pace then grinding down his rivals with relentless consistency.
Despite being hampered by his early running order on day one, it didn’t take long for the French ace to hit the front. Mads Østberg was the early pace setter, sharing two stage wins apiece with Ogier in the morning and entering midday service with a 3.3 second advantage. The gap could, and perhaps should, have been larger were it not from a rookie error from the Norwegian’s co-driver Jonas Andersson who forgot to remove the radiator shield, meant to keep the engine warm during road sections, from the front of the car. Realising their mistake just moments before the start of the stage, the Scandinavian pairing were forced to throttle down to avoid the engine overheating and lost significant time in the process.
As it turned out, the seconds lost there mattered little, as a rejuvenated Ogier burst out of the traps and immediately grabbed the lead as the afternoon’s entertainment got underway. With the afternoon stages essentially a repeat of the morning loop, he and teammate Latvala, running one and two on the road, benefitted from the freshly swept racing lines and this allowed the VW duo to really stretch their legs. Ogier ended the day 26 seconds clear of Østberg with Latvala just 16.4 seconds off the Citroën man.
For the rest of the field however, day one in Mexico proved to be as brutal as any in recent memory. First, Andreas Mikkelsen hit a rock just three stages in to his Rally Mexico debut, ripping apart his suspension and forcing him in to an early exit. By stage 8, two more big hitters had fallen by the wayside, with Kris Meeke’s Citroën DS3 losing a wheel after colliding with a rock on a particularly narrow section and then Mikko Hirvonen suffering an alternator failure on his Fiesta RS WRC. Somewhat worryingly for Hirvonen and M-Sport, this is now the second time a faulty alternator has brought the Finn to a halt in three rallies.
While Neuville was enjoying his longest trouble free stint in the i20 so far this season, Hyundai number two Chris Atkinson was bearing the brunt of the team’s ongoing reliability problems. His first outing of the season was hampered by a whole raft of issues with the brakes, suspension and anti-lag system.
However, perhaps the most dramatic moment of the whole weekend came on the evening of day one at the flood-lit super special stage, a head-to-head contest played out inside León city’s racetrack. Robert Kubica, running fourth after a strong day, missed his breaking point on the slippery entry to the first turn and clipped a concrete bollard. The impact sent his Fiesta flying in to a roll and the ex-F1 man embarrassingly ended up belly-up in front of the 10,000 strong local crowd. Both he and co-driver Maciej Szczepaniak were unhurt but the car had taken substantial frontal damage. Though it still appeared drivable, organisers refused to let the pair tackle the re-run and therefore the M-sport man was handed a hefty penalty for not completing the day.
To add to the drama, just moments later, Atkinson made an identical error on the very same corner of the stage. However, the Aussie was able to call on his vast rallying experience and ploughed head-on through the harmless plastic bollards rather than turning in to the bend as Kubica had. He re-joined losing minimal time, his quick thinking surly sparing him from a similar fate as Kubica.
The casualties continued to mount on day two, starting with second placed Mads Østberg who became the next man to pull out after clipping a bank and breaking his rear suspension. Desperate attempts at a makeshift repair proved in vain as he retired on the road section before stage 13. The 26 year-old was understandably bitterly disappointed at seeing an almost certain podium spot go begging. He later cited an incorrect pace-note as the cause of the incident, capping a rally to forget for hapless co-driver Andersson.
His struggles promoted Latvala, Neuville and Elfyn Evans up the order to second, third and fourth respectively but it was Ogier who continued to dominate proceedings, winning five consecutive stages on day two. The leader did survive a small scare on the León racetrack re-run when he hit a hole in the road, momentarily tossing his Polo R on to two wheels.
There was still time for two more rolls before the day was out. Kubica again failed to keep the car on its wheels and had to be recovered by marshals for the second time in as many days, whilst Mikkelsen too found himself upended and facing his second retirement of the rally.
After the earlier dramas, the final day was more of a procession as all of the drivers looked to safely consolidate their share of the points. However, there was one final bizarre twist in store for Thierry Neuville, who punctured his radiator on the very last stage. Having completed the final test, his third place finish looked to be assured but with coolant leaking rapidly, Hyundai’s maiden podium was suddenly thrown in to doubt. But the resourceful Belgian employed the contents of an enormous bottle of beer given to him by rally sponsors ready for the podium celebrations as makeshift coolant and this proved just enough to drag his wounded i20 back to service and past the final time control!
With the podium completed, young Welshman Evans clinched his best ever WRC finish with a superb fourth overall. His exemplary driving over the weekend paid dividends as many of the more experienced men around him bit the dust. Atkinson, despite his earlier issues, registered more points on the board for Hyundai by bringing his i20 home in seventh whilst both Hirvonen and Østberg restarted and fought their way back up the order to claim eighth and ninth respectively.
Heading in to round 4 in Portugal, Ogier now holds a slender 3 point lead over Latvala in the championship with Østberg 28 further back in third, Mikkelsen fourth and Evans climbing to fifth. The action in the Algarve gets underway on 3rd of April.