This week’s 15th Rally Guanajuato México marks the first time this season that FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) teams will face the rigours of punishing heat, abrasive gravel and demanding altitude.
México’s now traditional third round of the championship is a far cry from the changing stage surfaces of the Alpes-Maritimes or the sub-zero temperatures of a harsh Swedish winter. Several drivers switched teams in the close season and new partnerships provide new challenges, particularly on a specialised event like Rally México where pre-rally gravel testing could play a key role in determining the outcome at the ceremonial finish on Sunday (March 11) afternoon.
The M-Sport Ford World Rally Team are the defending Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ champions after enjoying an historic season in 2017, where Frenchman Sébastien Ogier claimed his third personal title and M-Sport beat factory opposition on a limited budget to create history in the Teams’ category.
Three-time Mexican event winner Ogier began this season well with victory in Monte Carlo, but the team suffered a setback in Sweden and management realise the importance of podium results in México. Unseasonal wintry weather trimmed the team’s pre-rally test in Spain to just three days, but M-Sport took advantage of Ford’s climatic chamber in Dunton to carry out vital engine mapping to cope with altitudes of in excess of 2,700 metres above sea level on the mountainous gravel stages around Guanajuato and León.
Team principal Malcolm Wilson said: “We are expecting the championship to be closer than ever this year. If we want to regain our place at the head of the standings, we need to deliver a strong team result in México. I am confident that we can launch a return to form.”
Ogier currently holds second in the championship and is joined by Wales Rally GB winner Elfyn Evans and Finland’s Teemu Suninen in M-Sport’s three-car team. Young Suninen will be tackling the event for the first time in a World Rally Car, although he won WRC2 here in 2016.
The Toyota GAZOO Racing World Rally Team struggled with overheating issues on the Yaris WRC’s Mexican debut last season, but team principal Tommi Mäkinen is keen to show improvements have been made. Toyota has started the season well and holds second in the Manufacturers’ standings, with the experienced former event winner Jari-Matti Latvala joined by Estonian Ott Tanak and fellow Finn Esapekka Lappi this time out.
Mäkinen, 53, said: “We have done a lot of work to improve. México was tough for us with our new car. We have improved the cooling and the engine. We have even been in an altitude dyno in Japan and have put a lot of effort into these areas.”
Pre-event testing is banned outside of Europe and the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team headed to the Girona region of Spain in February for a three-day test. Norway’s Andreas Mikkelsen, Spain’s Dani Sordo and early WRC leader Thierry Neuville all had opportunities to test the i20 WRC. Neuville is one of the clear favourites to win the title for the first time this year and will be hoping to adapt quickly to this week’s 22 timed special stages and a total competitive distance of 344.49km.
Nine-time WRC champion Sébastien Loeb returns to the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team to accompany last year’s Mexican event winner Kris Meeke. The Frenchman won the third round of the WRC on six occasions with Daniel Elena and rejolins the team after a three-year absence. His expertise and experience has helped the French team make a promising start to the season. Besides, Citroën has won seven of the 13 Mexican events in the WRC thus far.
The team tested the C3 WRC in the Almeria province of southern Spain last month and 44-year-old Loeb was encouraged by the feedback: “The evolution of the suspension and the geometry helped give me more confidence and that’s something I needed. Compared to the old World Rally Car, for sure, the engine is stronger and the balance of the car was good.”
Citroën’s new team principal Pierre Budar added: “The aim will be to pick up where we left off in Sweden. We know the rally very well and claimed the C3 WRC’s first ever win here. We also know the first gravel round of the year is unusual, mainly due to the altitude, and that can shake things up completely.”
Local hero Benito Guerra will not be taking part in the 15th Rally Guanajuato México after his Skoda Fabia R5 was completely destroyed by fire at the test session in Irapuato on Monday.
The Mexican had taken part in a couple of runs and the car was sitting under a tent in the service area when a fire rapidly took hold and could not be extinguished before terminal damage had been done. It was a bitterly disappointing start to what should be a seven-rally WRC programme for the Mexican with Motorsport Italia.
Several of the 28 entrants will be competing on Mexican gravel for the first time. One of those is young Finn Kalle Rovanperä, the son of 2002 Rally Mexico winner Harri Rovanperä. He has the backing of Skoda Motorsport for his WRC2 entry in a Fabia R5 alongside navigator Jonne Halttunen.
Competing against the Finn in a strong WRC2 field will be a 17-year-old Bolivian debutant, who also has a father with a keen motor sporting tradition. Marquito Bulacia drives one of four M-Sport Ford Fiesta R5s and has the backing, not only of father Marco, but also of the Bolivian President Evo Morales.
His plan to tackle Rally México and five other WRC events was launched at a reception in La Paz last week and the youngster has the added benefit of being used to competing at altitude. His father is a regular competitor in the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies and finished the recent Dakar Rally in 14th overall in a South Racing Ford Ranger.
The youngster, who won his class in the Bolivian Championship at the age of 15 and drove a Fiesta WRC to the semi-finals of the Bettega Memorial rallysprint in Bologna last December, said: “I’m excited to represent my country and I am very proud. It’s incredible, a dream come true.”
(Article and Images Supplied by Event Promoters)