PHOTO: Sebastien Ogier slides his Volkswagen through the striking Mexican landscape, leading yet another round of the WRC (Volkswagen pic).
LEÓN (Mexico) – French duo Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia survived a dramatic opening leg and overcame the disadvantage of starting first to claim a 13.5-second lead on Rally Guanajuato Mexico on Friday.
In an incident-filled day, where spectacular crashes and a high rate of attrition among leading cars stole the headlines, the defending World Champions were models of consistency in the lead Volkswagen Polo R WRC.
When Ogier’s closest challenger, Thierry Neuville of Belgium, punctured a tyre and rolled his Hyundai i20 WRC out of second place in SS8, Ogier cruised to the end of the leg ahead of teammate Jari-Matti Latvala.
The Finn, meanwhile, survived a frightening moment of his own on the final super special stage.
“Quite amazing to have the lead after starting first on the road this morning,” Ogier said of the disadvantage standings leaders face of having to start first and sweep the gravel roads on the first two days.
“This has been very hard and we had to push from the first minute to the end. But I am very pleased with this and no road cleaning for me tomorrow.”
Norway’s Mads Østberg refused to let Andreas Mikkelsen through into third place to make it a Volkswagen 1-2-3. The Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team driver overcame gearbox issues and reached the overnight halt in the final podium place.
“It got better as the day went on. We are focusing on trying to enjoy it,” Ostberg said.
Behind Mikkelsen, Welshman Elfyn Evans was fifth in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta and Dani Sordo was a distant sixth in the sole-surviving works Hyundai.
The ever-improving Ukrainian Yuriy Protasov fended off an increasingly intense challenge from Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah to hold a 14.5-second advantage in WRC2.
M-Sport World Rally Team’s Ott Tanak and Raigo Molder were fortunate to survive a dramatic third-stage plunge into a reservoir next to the track.
Their Ford Fiesta rolled down a bank into the water and the Estonian duo escaped only seconds before the car sank out of sight. It was retrieved from late on Friday afternoon.
Ogier led 29 rivals from the restart at the Rally Campus in León to the start of the 9.91km of Los Mexicanos. The short gravel special took place in cool, overcast conditions and Neuville moved to within 0.2 seconds of Ogier after setting the second quickest time behind Meeke, who climbed to third place.
Østberg spun and lost nine seconds 1.2km into the test, but Tanak left the road and the car was not visible to passing cars after becoming submerged in water.
The incident forced rally organisers to stop the stage after Lorenzo Bertelli’s car had crossed the start.
The leading group headed for the daunting 44.13km of the El Chocolate special. but New Zealand’s Hayden Paddon stopped 3.1km from the start with rear suspension damage after sliding wide under braking and hitting a rock.
Kris Meeke lost third place after getting out of line in a fast right-hand corner 1.5km into the stage. The Ulsterman clipped a rock and damaged his Citroen DS3.
Running first on the road in low cloud and cool, overcast conditions appeared no disadvantage to Ogier.
Latvala complained about the slippery conditions, but Robert Kubica was in flying form and running comfortably quicker than Ogier through the early split sections before stopping to change a puncture.
A steering arm was also damaged however, and the Pole rolled out of contention soon afterwards. Sordo suffered transmission issues on the start line and windscreen misting after a water splash.
Rally officials decided to stop the stage after Bertelli had started to regroup the field before Las Minas 1.
Neuville duly reduced Ogier’s lead to 8.9 seconds, but the Frenchman was satisfied with his morning’s work after depriving Martin Prokop of a maiden WRC stage win in the León street stage.
“I am very pleased with this loop,” said Ogier. “We made a clever tyre choice and it compensated for sweeping the road. I pushed very hard.”
Latvala was quickest through the re-run of Los Mexicanos to consolidate third place behind Ogier and Neuville, but the second pass through El Chocolate would be decisive.
Lorenzo Bertelli stopped just over seven kilometres into the stage with technical issues. Neuville’s brave challenge also melted in El Chocolate when he rolled and damaged his i20 WRC’s radiator in a left-hand corner not far from the finish after he had sustained a flat tyre.
The carnage continued when Sordo’s Hyundai sustained a flat tyre and he also damaged the bodywork in a water splash.
Ogier headed to stage nine with an advantage of 12.1 seconds over Latvala. Mikkelsen climbed to within 4.6 seconds of Østberg’s hold on third place after the Citroën driver clipped a bank and lost time. Protasov extended his WRC2 lead over Al-Attiyah to 14.5 seconds.
The last gravel stage of the day was a re-run of the 15.54km of Las Minas and Latvala continued his resurgent form to shave another 1.2 seconds off Ogier’s lead, even though Østberg set the quickest time to maintain third overall.
Ogier set the quickest time in the 4.6km super special stage and extended his lead over Latvala to 13.5 seconds.
On Saturday, crews tackle a further eight special stages in a similar route format to Friday, with three gravel stages preceded by a second run around the León street stage. The three timed tests are repeated in the afternoon and the León circuit takes centre stage in the evening for the third tour of the super special.