Esapekka Lappi put in a faultless performance in the scorching heat and power-sapping altitude of WRC Rally Mexico to fend off six-time winner Sebastien Ogier during Friday’s dramatic opening leg.
Despite several of the FIA World Rally Championship’s leading crews running into trouble on the grueling, dust-clogged stages in the mountains around Leon, Hyundai driver Lappi (above) steered clear of drama to head Ogier’s Toyota on the first gravel round of the season.
Lappi’s i20 N Rally1 led from the outset after grabbing the top spot in the morning’s opener. But eight-time WRC champ Ogier, who’s chosen to run only a limited program of rallies with Toyota, stayed right on his tail in his GR Yaris Rally1, with the duo exchanging times for much of the day.
But it was Lappi’s impressive performances in the afternoon’s closing run of special stages which made all the difference. Back-to-back stage wins in Las Minas and Las Dunas gave the Finn some much-needed breathing space and, while Ogier clawed back some time in the Distrito Leon super special, 5.3s split the pair at close of play.
“I am a bit surprised, but I take it as it is,” Lappi said at day’s end. “This was probably one of the best days of my rallying career.
“I always hoped that I could fight at the top, but to be leading and fighting against Seb was never in my mind. I didn’t really think about how this day would go, but I was just confident that our pace would be good.”
Elfyn Evans filled the final podium spot, finishing 24.8s behind his Toyota GR Yaris teammate, Ogier. As temperatures neared 85 degrees F and sections on some stages reached 9,000ft in altitude, it was a trying day for crews and cars alike, with the thin air sapping engine power by as much as 20 percent. But the Welshman’s struggles were limited to a lack of traction on some of the tests.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville was hampered by hybrid unit failure in the morning, followed by a seized rear-right damper and damaged driveshaft boot in the afternoon. He pressed on regardless, reaching the overnight halt just 9.7s adrift of the podium in his i20 N.
Starting second on the road, reigning WRC champ Kalle Rovanpera was severely affected by the loose conditions – the early runners effectively road sweepers for the cars starting further down the running order. As a result, the Yaris driver lost time in almost every test, ending the day fifth and a sizable 19.9s down on Neuville.
Meanwhile, Hyundai’s Dani Sordo leaked around a minute when he limped through the day’s fifth test with left-rear tire damage, dropping from fourth to sixth overall.
Championship leader Ott Tanak languishes more than 14 minutes back from the lead after crawling through the morning loop with turbocharger failure and starting first on the road – a double whammy of challenges. In fact, it was a disastrous day for the Estonian’s M-Sport Ford team all around, as both teammate Pierre-Louis Loubet and privateer entry Jourdan Serderidis retired their Pumas in the opening stage.
In WRC2, Gus Greensmith wasted no time in getting to grips with his all-new Skoda Fabia RS, building an 8.5s advantage over former teammate Adrien Fourmaux.
Despite having limited testing time prior to the event, Greensmith appeared comfortable with his Toksport-prepared machine. He consistently posted top-three stage times throughout the morning and reached the mid-leg service just 3.0s down on overnight leader Emil Lindholm’s Skoda Fabia Evo.
That put Greensmith in prime position to pounce in the afternoon when Lindholm dropped 14s on the second passage of the iconic El Chocolate stage, demoting the Finn four positions and leaving Greensmith as the WRC2 leader, where he remained for the rest of the day.
“The morning was a little bit tricky because the tires were overheating, but I knew that once we put the hard tires on I could go much quicker,” said Greensmith, who’s dropped down to the WRC2 class after a frustrating season with M-Sport Ford’s Rally1 Puma in 2022. “It’s a nice lead, but not a massive one. It’s all about managing risks and the pace here, and trying to be tidy.”
Lindholm’s demotion lifted Adrien Fourmaux to second in his Ford Fiesta Rally2. The Frenchman – also regrouping in WRC2 after a trying campaign in an M-Sport Ford Puma last season – is within striking distance of former teammate Greensmith, setting up an exciting second day.
Saturday’s leg is the longest of the event and features nine more challenging stages adding up to 78.62 competitive miles.
WRC Rally Mexico, leading positions after Day One, SS10
1 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 1h25m12.0s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +5.3s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +30.1s
4 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +39.8s
5 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +59.7s
6 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +1m27.2s
7 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson ((Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2 leader) +3m50.1s
8 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (Ford Fiesta MkII – WRC2) +3m58.6s
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