Loeb and Citroën lead in Mexico

The French duo of Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena led Rally Guanajuato Mexico 2012 by just 11.2 seconds after a punishing day’s action over 10 demanding special stages, near Guanajuato and León, on Friday.

The Citroën Total World Rally Team duo – who are chasing an unprecedented sixth successive Mexican WRC victory – were pushed all the way on the opening gravel day of the third round of the 2012 FIA World Rally Championship by team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, who now hold second overall in a second DS3 WRC.

“I know I have to continue to push because Mikko is pushing and Jari-Matti (Latvala) is very fast. There is a long way to go and we need to make sure we stay ahead,” said Loeb.

Predictably, a fierce battle waged in hot, sunny conditions between Citroën and their rival Ford World Rally Team, with the French manufacturer holding the upper hand when two costly punctures delayed the Blue Oval’s overnight leader Petter Solberg and damaged front suspension cost Jari-Matti Latvala his Friday morning lead.

With a rebuilt car after the mid-day service, Latvala began a fight back through the field and climbed to fourth overall at the end of the day behind Loeb, Hirvonen and third-placed Mads Østberg. Solberg recovered from 13th to hold fifth, Estonian Ott Tänak dropped to sixth with a 10-second time penalty imposed and Russia’s Evgeny Novikov, Australia’s Chris Atkinson, Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Portugal’s Armindo Araújo completed the top 10.

Twelfth-placed Mexican driver Benito Guerra delighted the home fans by leading the PWRC category in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X after Friday’s special stages. Guerra heads into the second of the long days with a slender lead over Poland’s Michal Kosciuszko, the leader of the FIA Production series after round one.

Friday – as it happened

Armindo Araújo led cars into the opening 22.12km mixed surface El Cubilete stage, where Ken Block lost time jammed in first gear and overnight leader Solberg lost considerable time with a rear puncture. Hirvonen won the stage by just 0.8s from Latvala and moved into a one-second lead. Loeb, Neuville and Østberg held third, fourth and fifth places.

“Four kilometres and we had a puncture on the right-hand corner,” said a dejected Solberg, who is bidding to end a seven-year WRC victory drought here in Mexico. The Norwegian slipped to 13th overall.

Latvala won the new Las Minas stage, which wound its way through the local silver mines, and moved ahead of Hirvonen by 1.2s. Loeb set the second fastest time and maintained third, but closed to within 5.5s of his team-mate. Solberg punctured again and dropped another 29.5s, Al-Attiyah survived a wild spin and several of the front-runners complained of excessive tyre wear on the abrasive stage surfaces.

“That was the most difficult stage in Mexico,” admitted Latvala. “At the beginning it reminded me of Cyprus. Then it was very fast at the end. I have a big fight with Mikko. He looks like he is being cautious, but I know he is coming, believe me!”

Loeb set his first fastest time of the event through Los Mexicanos and maintained third position, as Latvala extended his advantage over Hirvonen to 2.2s. Solberg recovered from his woeful start to record the fourth quickest time and climbed to 10th.

But broken front suspension cost Latvala over half a minute through the fifth Ortega stage and he dropped to eighth overall, as Hirvonen took the lead and saw his advantage trimmed to just six-tenths of a second by Loeb. Østberg held third, albeit 39.9s adrift of the leading Finn, and Neuville and Tanak rounded off the top five, as crews returned to León for much-needed service.

Block lost over three minutes with a broken driveshaft, but the fourth fastest time moved Solberg up to seventh. Paulo Nobre was forced out after an accident and Guerra reached the end of the fifth stage with a 13.7s lead over PWRC championship leader Kosciuszko. Peruvian driver Nicolas Fuchs was third.

Event officials cancelled the second run through the Ortega stage for security reasons, after stones were thrown Thierry Neuville’s car during the morning. Action resumed on schedule with the second El Cubilete special, however, and a resurgent Latvala benefited from a rebuilt car to set the quickest time.

Belgian Thierry Neuville lost fourth place when he clouted a kerbing and the impact wrenched a wheel off his Ford Fiesta, as Loeb moved into an overall 2.2s lead. Škoda’s Kevin Abbring never made it out of service: he had been running in 12th overall before reported fuel pressure issues sidelined his Fabia S2000.

Latvala continued his impressive form through SS7 and clawed another 4.2s back on the leading Frenchman, who edged a further 1.5s ahead of Hirvonen. The Finn also moved up to fourth place; he passed Tanak and also benefited from a reported slow puncture for Solberg.

Latvala gained 8.2s on Østberg through SS8 – where the Norwegian was forced to play football with an errant electrical box that had worked loose in his foot well on the stage. The Finn also beat leader Loeb by 0.2s, but trailed the defending World Champion by 1m 19.9s heading towards the remaining three short spectator stages. Hirvonen maintained second position and needed to claw back 4.5s to tie for the overnight lead.

Loeb managed to edge 0.8s further ahead through the Monster street stage and eventually reached the overnight halt with an advantage over Hirvonen of 11.2 seconds.

The León area was affected by a freak, torrential thunderstorm less than an hour before the last two super special stages, where Al-Attiyah and Atkinson set the fastest times because adverse conditions affected several of the later crews. The result marked the first ever WRC stage win for Al-Attiyah, the former Dakar winner.

Saturday:
Seven special stages feature in the timetable for Saturday, with 183.80 competitive kilometres on the agenda in a total route of 427.53km. The action gets underway with the 29.90km of the Ibarilla special (06.54hrs) and continues with the daunting 41.88km Otates stage at 08.12hrs.

After a return to León for service, the two special stages are repeated at 11.06hrs and 12.24hrs, before another service break precedes the 17.91km of Comanjilla – run twice at 15.30hrs and 17.23hrs – and two consecutive laps of the short 2.21km super special stage at 16.45hrs.

Positions after SS12 (unofficial):
1. Sébastien Loeb (FRA)/Daniel Elena (FRA) Citroën DS3 WRC – 1h 24m 46.4s
2. Mikko Hirvonen (FIN)/Jarmo Lehtinen (FIN) Citroën DS3 WRC – 1h 24m 57.6s
3. Mads Østberg (NOR)/Jonas Andersson (SWE) Ford Fiesta RS WRC – 1h 25m 58.3s
4. Jari-Matti Latvala (FIN)/Miikka Anttila (FIN) Ford Fiesta RS WRC – 1h 26m 14.3s
5. Petter Solberg (NOR)/Chris Patterson (GBR) Ford Fiesta RS WRC – 1h 26m 21.8s
6. Ott Tänak (EST)/Kuldar Sikk (EST) Ford Fiesta RS WRC – 1h 26m 23.1s
7. Evgeny Novikov (RUS)/Denis Giraudet (FRA) Ford Fiesta RS WRC – 1h 26m 48.4s
8. Chris Atkinson (AUS)/Stéphane Prévot (BEL) Ford Fiesta RS WRC – 1h 27m 20.1s
9. Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QAT)/Giovanni Bernacchini (ITA) Citroën DS3 WRC – 1h 27m 35.0s
10. Armindo Araújo (PRT)/Miguel Ramalho (PRT) Mini JCW WRC – 1h 28m 16.6s
11. Sébastien Ogier (FRA)/Julian Ingrassia (FRA) Škoda Fabia S2000 – 1h 29m 01.6s
– Credit: www.rallymexico.com.