World champion Sébastien Ogier continued his blistering start to the 2015 WRC season with a commanding 1min18sec win on Rally Mexico, his third victory in as many years on the León-based event. In his wake, the Norwegian WRC contingent displayed ice-cool determination in the blazing Central American heat,with podium places for Citroën’s Mads Østberg and Volkswagen’s Andreas Mikkelsen.
Besides the headlines of a relatively straightforward Ogier victory, this event is unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry. The action in Mexico was peppered with a series of highly dramatic moments, not least Ott Tänak’s terrifying plunge in to a lake. He and co-driver Raigo Molder miraculously escaped unharmed in what was surely one of the most extraordinary incidents witnessed in WRC for many a year.
Embarking on the first hot-gravel round since last September, drivers and teams had to quickly reacquaint themselves with the particular challenges thrown up by Rally Mexico, as this event is the first in a run of six consecutive dirt rallies. That means dealing with baking heat and engine-sapping high altitudes in equal measure. Ex-Citroën star Sébastien Loeb notched up six consecutive wins here between 2006 and 2012 but since then it has been another Frenchman, Ogier, who has established an iron grip over Central America’s only WRC round, claiming top spot on both 2013 and 2014 editions.
It was that same man up to his old tricks again on day one of the 2015 installment. Opening the roads on Friday morning, the championship leader was fully expected to struggle in the early exchanges. However, taking full advantage of unusually cool road temperatures, as low as 7°C in the mountain stages, Ogier opted to fit his Polo R with two soft compound tyres for the morning loop, a tactic almost unheard of in Mexico. His judgement was impeccable, as the VW number one flew away from his rivals, establishing a 10sec advantage by midday. The afternoon session heralded the arrival of more even conditions and served only to widen the gap further, leaving VW teammate and second placed Jari-Matti Latvala 13.5secs in arrears by Friday evening.
Ogier’s cause was helped by the carnage ensuing further back. The trio of Kris Meeke, Hayden Paddon and Robert Kubica all incurred the wrath of the Mexican dirt tracks on Friday. The former pair both retired with terminal suspension damage whilst the Pole collided with a bank on stage 4, puncturing a tyre and severely damaging his Fiesta’s steering. Soon after, the ex-F1 pilot lost control and rolled, bringing his day to a premature conclusion.
A similar fate was to befall Thierry Neuville on the second pass of the marathon El Chocolate stage on Friday afternoon. Slotted in behind Ogier, the Hyundai star swiped a bank, puncturing a tyre and sending the Belgian in to a roll which left the radiator badly crumpled and the i20 several centimetres shorter than factory spec.
Neuville’s loss promoted Latvala into second and Mads Østberg, recovering impressively from an early spin, up to third. They headed the dicing youngsters Andreas Mikkelsen and Elfyn Evans in fourth and fifth.
However, by far most the climactic moment of the rally, and of the season so far, came on stage 3 when Estonia’s Ott Tänak overshot a fast downhill left-hander, leaving him helpless to prevent his Fiesta RS being dragged off the road and plunging in to a nearby lake. After rolling several times down the bank, the car plummeted in to the water. Thankfully, it landed top-side up, giving Tänak and Molder just enough time to clamber to safety before the Ford sunk in to five metres of murky water. After a short swim to the bank, the duo escaped shocked but mercifully unharmed in an accident that could have easily yielded far more serious consequences.
13 hours after its unlucky dip, M-Sport mechanics had retrieved Tänak’s Fiesta and, astoundingly, had it running again in service overnight. Sadly though, a minor mechanical miracle was curtailed on Saturday morning when the RS’s engine failed to splutter back in to life leaving Tänak, perhaps somewhat gratefully, high and dry for the day.
And a significant day it proved to be. Despite lacking the plethora of dramas witnessed on Friday, Saturday’s leg in Mexico may turn out to be a major determining factor in the outcome of this year’s world championship. With Ogier 14secs up on Latvala, it was time for the Finn, under pressure after drawing a blank in Sweden, to attempt to turn the screw. But in doing so the VW number two became the next casualty of the challenging conditions as he strayed wide on a fast right corner, flicking the rear of the Polo R in to a bank and losing his left-rear wheel in the process. Such a body blow proved impossible to recover form, with the 29 year-old retiring as soon as he limped over the final time control.
This critical error left Ogier with a mammoth 1min15sec cushion over the promoted Østberg in second, an advantage that he marginally extended over Sunday’s final trio of stages. The DS3 ace dodged a considerable bullet himself when his suspension was damaged on stage 13, but the combination of a steady display on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning and an uncharacteristic spin for Mikkelsen on stage 19 kept Østberg’s nose ahead his compatriot. Just 6.3secs separated the two Norwegian’s in the final reckoning. Evans’s fourth spot had briefly looked under threat from Hyundai’s Dani Sordo, however the Brit was able to hold on and equal his best ever finish thanks largely to his Spanish pursuer hitting trouble on Saturday evening and shedding over a minute.
So, with Latvala failing to score for the second rally in succession, prompting the Finn himself to issue a grim assessment of his own 2015 title hopes, Rally Mexico represents another considerable step forward for the Ogier title-defence campaign. Add to the mix Thierry Neuville’s early woes and the Frenchman’s ever increasing 34 point championship lead is looking all the more cast-iron with every passing event.
The pretenders to the WRC throne will need every last minute of the seven-week hiatus before WRC rolls in to Argentina on 23rd April to devise new battle plans with which to combat the Ogier juggernaut. But with the new season just 3 rounds old, has the major damage already been done?
Rally Mexico 2015 – Final Results:
|POS||TEAM||DRIVER||POINTS||TIME||DIFF PREV||DIFF 1ST|