Loeb set for victory in Mexico?

The French duo of Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena extended their overall lead in
Rally Guanajuato Mexico 2012 to 36.2 seconds after a further eight mixed surface special stages on Saturday.

The eight-time World Champions are chasing a sixth successive WRC win in Mexico and began the day with an 11.2-second advantage over Citroën World Rally Team colleagues, Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen.

The wily Loeb mastered his tactics to perfection over the challenging special stages, often held at altitude around Guanajuato and León, to gradually tighten his vice-like grip on the event. Hirvonen had no answer to the champion’s strategy, but maintained a comfortable second overall nonetheless

“There was no chance today to take it easy,” said Loeb. “The Fords were pushing hard and I knew Mikko would be going fast as well. There were places with rocks in the track and I had to be careful. I managed to build up a good lead. It was a good day, but tomorrow we have a long stage. But I am in a good position.”

Predictably, the Ford duo of Jari-Marti Latvala and Petter Solberg mounted a brave and determined challenge and maintained the pressure on the leading duo throughout the morning. But a puncture and a shredded tyre ruined Latvala’s charge in SS15 and his priority duly changed to trying to preserve third overall. After disposing of Mads Østberg during the morning, the Finn briefly ceded third to Solberg, before speeding up over the closing stages to consolidate the final podium position.

Norwegian Mads Ostberg was realistic about his chances of catching the factory Fords and was content to hold a solid fifth. A flat tyre nearly dropped Estonian Ott Tänak into Evgeny Novikov’s clutches after the 15th stage, but Tänak responded in an impressive manner to confirm sixth at the end of the day.

Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah, who had become the first Arab driver ever to win a WRC special stage on Friday evening, held eighth after being embroiled in his own battle with Aussie Chris Atkinson, before the latter’s retirement with brake woes. The Qatari inherited seventh on the final stage of the day when Novikov wrenched a wheel off his Ford.

Portugal’s Armindo Araújo was better pleased with his Mini’s set-up over Saturday’s stages and finished the day in eighth. Sébastien Ogier struggled to match the more powerful WRC cars in his Skoda Fabia S2000 and held ninth, Ken Block climbed to 10th in the Monster Ford Fiesta and Benito Guerra strengthened his grip on the PWRC category.

Saturday – as it happened:
Latvala posted his intent from the outset and set a stunning time through the 29.90km Ibarilla stage, the Finn beating Hirvonen by 5.3s and, in so doing, he snatched third overall from Østberg. Hirvonen managed to reduce Loeb’s overall lead to 8.7s. Guerra was suffering from tyre wear and kept his PWRC lead, but lost 12th place to a resurgent Ken Block. Brazilian Paulo Nobre left the road again and retired.

A clean run and the lack of tyre issues was critical in the 41.88km Otates special stage – the 14th and longest stage of the event so far – and Loeb set the fastest time to extend his advantage over Hirvonen to 18.2s. Latvala earned the second fastest time to reduce his former team-mate’s hold on second place to 67.4s, but the top 10 held station on the return to León for service.

“I am probably going a little too much sideways,” admitted Latvala. “We have a different set-up this year for Mexico. It is normally set for the faster roads and we did not expect so much twisty. I cannot catch the top two with the difference. I just need to keep the pressure on.”

But keeping the pressure on came with its own risks and Latvala clouted a rock four kilometres into the re-run of the Ibarilla stage and collected a puncture. He was forced to complete the stage on the shredding front tyre and the lost time pushed him three seconds behind Solberg – into fourth overall – and enabled Ostberg to close to within 1.8s of fourth overall.

Loeb was his usual calm and determined self and another fastest time stretched his lead over Hirvonen to 21.7s. Tänak also punctured on the tricky stage and reached the finish still in sixth overall, but a mere 4.2s in front of Novikov’s similar Ford Fiesta.

Guerra strengthened his grip on the PWRC category when series leader Michal Kosciuszko was delayed on the road section to the 15th stage and ultimately retired soon afterwards after removing a wheel. Engine oil pressure problems had already accounted for Škoda’s Kevin Abbring.

A resurgent Latvala was quickest through the second Otates stage and regained third position from Solberg. Loeb admitted that he had taken it easy over the last few kilometres to avoid damaging the car and his tyres on some larger rocks in the track, but he still managed to extend his overall lead over Hirvonen to 28.7s.

Atkinson crossed the flying finish line and was given a stage time, but he clouted a banking, spun across the track, reversed and was forced to park his damaged Ford at the side of the stage after brake issues. He had been beaten on the special by Al-Attiyah in any case and the Qatari duly climbed to eighth position. In the other close battle within the top 10, Tänak extended his hold on sixth over Novikov to 5.8s.

Loeb erred on the side of caution through the 17.91km of the first Comanjilla stage and admitted that other cars had been flicking a few stones into the track, which could have caused problems. Latvala duly set the fastest time and beat Hirvonen by over 12 seconds into the bargain, but the Citroën duo remained well clear in first and second overall.

Two runs through the 2.21km super special stage were merged, rather than run them both as individual entities, and Loeb and Solberg set the equal fastest time of 3m 14.3s. There were no major dramas for the leaders and Loeb headed to the last stage of the day – the rerun of the Comanjilla stage – with an overall lead of 36.5s.

Novikov took a wheel off his Ford Fiesta and was unable to go any further. His demise promoted Al-Attiyah to seventh, Araújo to eighth, Ogier to ninth and Ken Block into the unofficial top 10. Latvala set the quickest time, but the day belonged to Loeb – the Frenchman had a lead of 36.2 seconds to take into the final day.

Sunday:
Sunday’s third and final leg of Rally Guanajuato Mexico provides a true sting in the tail. There are only four stages on the agenda, but they include the daunting 54.30km of the Guanajuatito special (10.33hrs) after an opening encounter with the 4.42km of the super special stage (09.30hrs), near León.

The long stage precedes the 10.58km of Derramadero at 12.06hrs and the final run through the 5.46km VW Power Stage at 13.18hrs. The finish podium is scheduled for 15.00hrs in León.

Positions after SS20 (unofficial @ 18.45hrs):
1. Sébastien Loeb (FRA)/Daniel Elena (FRA) Citroën DS3 WRC – 3h 25m 17.5s
2. Mikko Hirvonen (FIN)/Jarmo Lehtinen (FIN) Citroën DS3 WRC – 3h 25m 53.7s
3. Jari-Matti Latvala (FIN)/Miikka Anttila (FIN) Ford Fiesta RS WRC – 3h 27m 10.5s
4. Petter Solberg (NOR)/Chris Patterson (GBR) Ford Fiesta RS WRC – 3h 27m 28.4s
5. Mads Østberg (NOR)/Jonas Andersson (SWE) Ford Fiesta RS WRC – 3h 28m 01.7s
6. Ott Tänak (EST)/Kuldar Sikk (EST) Ford Fiesta RS WRC – 3h 29m 39.6s
7. Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QAT)/Giovanni Bernacchini (ITA) Citroën DS3 WRC – 3h 31m 18.3s
8. Armindo Araújo (PRT)/Miguel Ramalho (PRT) Mini JCW WRC – 3h 35m 59.6s
9. Sébastien Ogier (FRA)/Julian Ingrassia (FRA) Škoda Fabia S2000 – 3h 37m 20.2s
10. Ken Block (USA)/Alex Gelsomino (USA) Ford Fiesta RS WRC – 3h 39m 09.3s
– Credit: www.rallymexico.com.