WRC left Europe and flew to South America, to the other side of the planet. After racing through the frozen asphalt in Monte Carlo and the snow of Sweden, the drivers now faced the scorching heat and rough gravel roads of the highlands of Mexico. Round 3 Rally Mexico is the first gravel (off-road) rally of the season. It is an important battleground since the result on its gravel courses will show who will win the championship title; these accounts for the largest portion of the WRC calendar (8 out of 13 matches).
The Rally Mexico, which first started in 1979 and became a member of the WRC in 2004, was hit hard by the Corona 19 pandemic and had to be omitted from the calendar for the past two years, but this year it was able to return in time for the 20th anniversary of its incorporation into the WRC. Rally’s headquarters are again located in Leon, 400 km northwest of Mexico City. Leon, the fifth largest city in Mexico, has been a base for the Rally Mexico since 1998.
Everyone welcomed Rally Mexico, which was revived after 3 years, but since it is a 1-year contract, it is unclear whether it will be available next year. The course is pretty much the same as those in 2020. The opening in the beautiful city of Guanajuato still caught the eye. Stages spanning nearby mountains and hills test the durability of the rally car, the patience of the challengers, and the challenge spirit to the limit, with its rugged gravel roads, high temperatures approaching 30°C, and dust blocking the view. Moreover, although on flat ground, the rally takes place at altitudes of up to 2,000m above sea level, up to 2,800m, so the air density is low, reducing engine power by 25%.
Since the Rally 1 is a hybrid drivetrain, this problem is relatively less. Many are paying attention to how fast Rally 1, the first to experience Mexico, will be. It was expected to be much faster than current rally cars because the motor and battery are less affected by high altitude. Motor power mapping will also be very important. On the other hand, problems with hybrid systems will cause much greater damage. Because of the first race in the highlands, each team devoted all their efforts to pre-testing to prevent any unexpected situations.
Sébastien Loeb and Sébastien Ogier have won Rally Mexico six times each. The most recent winner is Ogier in 2020. The race had to be finished on Saturday ahead of schedule due to the rapid spread of Covid-19 around the world at the time. This year’s stages are similar to those of 2020, and the 320.23km-long 23 stages are shorter than other rallies with a total driving distance of 971.32km, including the travel distance between them. On the other hand, the difficulty is quite high due to the high altitude, temperature, and rough roads. New courses this year include a 2.83km-long sprint stage in the service park (Distrito Leon Mx Rock & Rally), a new 3.84km-long course in the quarry (Las Dunas Superspecial), and the San Diego stage made in 2020, but unused.
Hyundai Motorsport’s drivers included Thierry Neuville, Esapekka Lappi and Dani Sordo. The Hyundai team, which took the double podium in Sweden, followed the momentum and pursued the first victory of the season in Mexico. Neuville, who has been consistently on the podium since the opening day, has climbed to the top 3 in Mexico (2013, 2014, 2017). Before the race, Neuville said: “Rally Mexico is a great event with a passionate audience in a beautiful country, and I personally look forward to it. It’s the first gravel rally of the season, and of course, hot and high altitude is a touph environment for a rally car, so the power needs to be harnessed through the right hybrid mapping. It is also important to set it up to ensure optimal traction and drive it accurately. The goal of this event is to compete at the top and finish on the podium.”
Sordo, in his second appearance of the season following the opening game in Monte Carlo, holds the record for finishing second in 2018 in a close encounter with Sébastien Ogier. Among Hyundai’s players, he has the best record in Mexico Rally. Meanwhile, Lappi, who has not yet reached the podium after joining the Hyundai team, has participated in Rally Mexico three times so far, but has not scored a single point. In 2020, when he belonged to M-Sport Ford, he retired due to a fire in a race car at the beginning of the race.
On the Toyota team, Kalle Rovanperä, Elfyn Evans and Sebastien Ogier work to earn team points, while Takamoto Katsuta got the fourth car. Katsuta, his first time in Mexico, is a semi-factory driver and is not eligible for team points. Ogier, who has been playing part-time since his retirement, is the most used to Mexico among current drivers as he holds a record of six wins. Plus, it’s good for him that the stages he most recently conquered in 2020 remain unchanged. The M-Sport Ford team gave its car to Ott Tänak, who won in Sweden, and Pierre-Louis Loubet, who was racing in Mexico for the first time. In addition, the team prepared three Puma Rally 1s, including those of Jourdan Serderidis, a driver from another team.
In the WRC2 class, which is a support match, most of the big players joined. Since WRC2 only needs to participate in 7 races out of the entire season, driver participation is different for each rally. This time, last year’s WRC2 champion Emil Lindholm), as well as Gus Greensmith, Adrien Fourmaux, Oliver Solberg, Nikolay Gryazin and Kajetan Kajetanowicz from Rally 1 participated. In addition, Czech veteran Martin Prokop showed up after a long time, and strong competitors such as Chile’s Jorge Martínez Fontena and Peru’s Eduardo Castro joined.
On Thursday morning, on the 5.5km shakedown stage near León, Hyundai and Toyota’s Finnish rivals, Lappi and Rovanpera, were the fastest. Lappi marked the same time as Rovanpera at 3:44.4 on the fourth run, followed by Ogier, Sordo, Evans, Neuville and Tänak.
The opening stage on Thursday evening was set up in Guanajuato. Guanajuato, not far from León, is a city established by Spain to develop silver mines in the mid-16th century, and is also the starting point of the Mexican independence movement. As they went through several floods and continued to build on the destroyed ruins, the city became what it is today. Baroque and neoclassical architecture, filled with vivid colors, Guanajuato is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
At 8:00 PM, the whole city was filled with the enthusiasm of the spectators, and SS1~SS2, announcing the start of Rally Mexico, began. On the course, which consisted of two short 1.12km-long stages, Ott Tänak with the most points moved up to the overall lead fastest, followed by Rovanpera, Lappi, Neuville, Ogier, Evans, Sordo and Loubet.
The gravel stage started on Friday, March 17th. Although the road was rough, most of the stages were close to the city center, so the distance between stages was short. After repeating in the morning and afternoon El Chocolate (31.45km), Ortega (15.61km) and Las Minas (13.61km), drivers competed on two sprint stages near León. Then they will go through the 3.84km-long Las Dunas made of gravel quarry four times on Saturday and Sunday. On Friday, the race was held over 128.01km-long eight stages (from SS3 to SS10).
The opening stage, SS3 El Choco Latte, is one of the signature stages of Rally Mexico and has been cultivating cacao for thousands of years. Its name suits Mexico, the origin of cacao. After a fresh start to the first day, Tänak will be the first to clean the road in the championship points order. However, Tänak suddenly stopped midway through the course and opened the bonnet. After nearly seven minutes wasted with a turbocharger problem, Tänak slipped away from the lead. But the M-Sport Ford had more bad luck. Loubet crashed into a rock, and even Serderidis suffered a broken suspension and retired. Friday’s opening stage was taken by Lappi. He and Ogier both recorded top times and fought hard for the lead.
In SS4 Ortega, many participants were embarrassed by obstacles that were not visible during recce (pre-run for writing pace notes). The high-speed sections and deep potholes were hidden in the shadows and were not easy to spot. Rovanpera complained of back pain, and Neuville’s car crashed so hard that the hybrid system stopped working for a moment. After taking the lead on Friday morning, Lappi ran through the lead with five stage top times. Ogier closed the gap to 0.3 seconds, but ended up finishing the Friday by 5.3 seconds. Ogier and Evans were second and third. And Neuville was 9.7 seconds behind Evans. Sordo, who had been 4th overall until the morning, had a flat rear tire and was pushed back to 6th behind Rovanpera. Meanwhile, Katsuta’s car got off to a rough start on Rally Mexico, exiting a high-speed corner on SS5 and rolling 5 meters below.
Saturday, which consisted of nine stages, was 128.61km-long, the longest of the races. On the opening stage, SS11 Ibarrilla, the Hyundai team had some bad luck. Lappi, who was running in the lead, spun and crashed into a power pole, damaging the back of the car and causing a fire in the engine room. It reminded him of a nightmare in Sweden where he led past mid-race and then dropped out. In addition, due to the severe damage, his car was retired on Saturday and could not go on Sunday’s power stage where he could aim for additional points.
With this, Ogier, who rose to the lead, was able to aim for the record for the most wins (7 wins) in Mexico. Evans was second and Neuville closely followed in third. Neuville, who became the leader of the Hyundai team, took SS12, SS13, and SS14 in succession, narrowing the distance to Evans in second place to about 9 seconds. SS15, which repeats the opening Ibarilla, was canceled due to an accident in the morning, but Neuville was also fastest on SS17.
More attention was now focused on the fight for second place between Evans and Neuville than on the lead Ogier. The time difference between the two, which was 9.7 seconds after finishing Friday, decreased to 4.3 seconds at the end of Saturday. Rovanpera in 4th and Sordo in 5th were far away and it would be difficult for them to reach the podium on their own. Thanks to a series of accidents by Rally 1 participants, many WRC2 class players have been able to score. Greensmith, Fourmaux, Lindholm, Solberg, and Kajetanowicz finished 6th through 10th respectively.
On Sunday, March 19th, the final showdown took place on four non-repetitive 61.37km-long stages. Unlike the relatively relaxed leader Ogier, the fight for second place between Evans and Neuville was on thin ice. Neuville took the lead by taking the opening SSS20 Las Dunas Quarry. At SS21 Otates, Evans fired back, widening the time difference again to 5.8 seconds. At SS22 San Diego, Neuville again recorded a top time, 2.7 seconds behind. Now, all that remains is the 9.58km-long SS23 El Brinco, which is also a power stage.
Ogier beat his competitors to the end to claim the overall victory. Ogier, who was in the lead after Lappi’s retirement, was able to take the win without much risk. Despite being a part-time driver for the season (played in 2 out of 3 games so far) by scoring up to 5 points in the final power stage, he scored 30 points this time alone and became the championship points leader with a total of 56 points.
Neuville finished second on SS23, pushing Evans by just 0.4 seconds. Neuville, who had been in 5th and 6th places at the beginning of the race, slowly moved up the ranks even as other drivers suffered accidents and punctures. Furthermore, Tänak and Rovanpera’s poor performances at the Rally Mexico resulted in them finishing second in the Drivers’ Championship points, three points behind Ogier. Given that Ogier is a part-time driver, Neuville is in the lead among main competitors aiming for the championship.
Evans, who finished her third on the podium for the first time of the season, was sidelined on the final stage with suspension damage. Rovanpera and Sordo took 4th and 5th places. Greensmith won the WRC2 class in 6th place, followed by Lindholm and Solberg in 7th and 8th places. Tänak barely finished ninth, with Kajetanowicz scoring last.
Competitors will now return to Europe for the season’s first tarmac rally in Croatia on 20-23 April. Even paved roads, the secluded country roads of Eastern Europe are very narrow and full of dramatic elements such as damaged pavement and jumps. In addition, the occasional heavy rain makes the tire strategy more difficult. The Hyundai team, which took the double podium at Rally Croatia last season thanks to the performances of Neuville and Tänak, are pouring their hearts out again this season for a good record.
By Sujin Lee, automobile critic
Excited about the 1991 establishment of the first domestic auto mania magazine 〈Car Vision〉, I sent a series of long letters there that led to an unexpected hire. After becoming an editor and the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉 and 〈Car Vision〉, I have started a new career as an auto critic. My recent interests include cutting-edge techs like electric cars, connected cars, and autonomous driving, but the ‘otaku’ in me doesn’t want internal combustion engines to disappear either.
HMG Journal Operation Teamgroup@hyundai.com
Pursuant to the Creative Commons License (CCL) 2.0, all users can copy, distribute, and transmit Information available on the Hyundai Motor Group Newsroom, or use it for exhibitions and performances. Please note, however, that all information is protected by copyright. Information users must use the information available on the Hyundai Motor Group Newsroom for strictly private/personal purposes only.HMG Operation Policy