The heat, dust and power-sapping altitude of Rally Mexico provide a tough challenge for the WRC’s first pure gravel rally of 2023.
Back on the calendar for the first time since 2020, the FIA World Rally Championship’s third round could see temperatures hitting 85 degrees F — and considerably hotter in the cars — as M-Sport Ford’s Ott Tanak attempts to increase his WRC points lead, despite facing the worst of the road conditions in Friday’s first full day of stages.
The Estonian grabbed the championship lead with victory on the ice and snow of Sweden last time out, but must pay his dues in the mountains around Leon when he opens the road in his hybrid Puma Rally1 on stages coated in dry and slippery gravel. Those tracks become cleaner and faster with each car that passes as the loose dirt is swept aside.
Tanak, a two-time Rally Mexico runner-up, will be praying for rain to bind the loose gravel together, but his wish will likely be in vain as the event is forecast to have sunny skies through to the finish on Sunday afternoon.
“I’m not sure I’m that good a (rain) dancer to get the rain in a place where it almost never rains!” joked the 2019 WRC champ, who’s joined by factory teammate Pierre-Louis Loubet and privateer Jourdan Serderidis in a three-car M-Sport attack.
This will be only Tanak’s third WRC start since joining M-Sport Ford from Hyundai this season, and despite hoping for a strong result, he knows Mexico will be a learning curve.
“During testing it was my very first time on gravel in the Puma Rally1 and it was very important to discover as much as possible,” he said. “The team is working hard to keep improving, but to really understand where we are now, we need to do a gravel rally first.”
Second and third in the points, and hence starting second and third on the road behind Tanak, Toyota’s reigning WRC champ Kalle Rovanpera and Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville are also likely to struggle on Friday. But one driver who’s ready to take advantage is Rovanpera’s teammate Sebastien Ogier, a six-time Mexico winner who starts fifth in his GR Yaris Rally1.
Eight-time WRC champ Ogier has chosen a part-time program for the Japanese marque and returns to action for the first time since his season-opening Monte Carlo Rally win in January.
“When I knew that Mexico was coming back, I had to mark it in my calendar as an event that would be nice to do again,” said the Frenchman. “It’s where everything started for me in the WRC, as it’s actually where I made my debut in 2008.”
Elfyn Evans, fourth in the WRC standings, and Takamoto Katsuta complete Toyota Gazoo Racing’s four-car fleet — although Katsuta won’t score manufacturers’ championship points with Ogier in attendance this week.
Dani Sordo joins Neuville and Esapekka Lappi in a three-strong Hyundai i20 N lineup and will be the last of the frontrunners onto the road. The Spaniard will be keen to make the most of the extra grip to put himself in a strong position for the last two legs, when competitors start in reverse order of classification.
“If we get it right, we believe we can be in the battle for victory, but we want to be on the podium as a minimum,” said Sordo.
Lappi starts sixth on the road in Friday’s first leg, and he can’t be ruled out for a strong result after matching fellow Finn Rovanpera’s time in Thursday morning’s pre-rally Shakedown stage. Ogier, Sordo and Evans completed the top five on a 3.42-mile test stage that each driver is allowed to complete multiple times.
The rally route climbs to almost 9,000 feet above sea level, where engines traditionally struggle to breathe in the thinner air and lose around 20 percent of their power. However, the headlining Rally1 cars’ hybrid specification includes a battery-powered boost that’s less impacted by the thinner air, which could make this the fastest ever Rally Mexico.
The rally starts tonight (Thursday) with two short street stages through Guanajuato’s former mining tunnels. Three more days of action follow in the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato mountains, before Sunday afternoon’s finish in Leon after 23 stages covering a total of 198.98 competitive miles.
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