PHOTO: World champion crew Julien Ingrassia (left) and Sebastien Ogier get in the mood before Rally Guanajuato Mexico (Volkswagen pic)
SÉBASTIEN Ogier holds the overnight lead in Rally Guanajuato Mexico, Round 3 of the 2015 WRC, after the first two stages on Thursday night.
The Frenchman won the headline heat at León motor racing circuit, around 320 kms north of Mexico City, relegating to second place the winner of the spectacular Guanajuato opening street stage, Hyundai driver Thierry Neuville.
Neuville shares second spot with Ogier’s Volkswagen teammate Andreas Mikkelsen, both 1.2 secs off the lead.
The rally resumes on Friday morning with competitors facing a further eight stages, including morning and afternoon passes over the 44.13 km El Chocolate, the second-longest stage of this high-altitude gravel event.
“It’s a good start to the rally. Tomorrow all I can do is go flat out,” said Ogier, winner of the past two Mexican rounds.
The Volkswagen Polo R pilot faces a tough job to hold his advantage from first in the starting order over mountain roads covered in a thick, loose gravel.
Mikkelsen edged out teammate Jari-Matti Latvala in the penultimate heat on the circuit stage, which saw cars race two at a time on a mix of gravel and tarmac surfaces, including a fan-pleasing big jump and water splash.
Mads Østberg defeated Elfyn Evans in the stage to hold fifth overall in Citroen’s DS 3, Evans losing confidence after a lurid slide under braking at a wet part of the circuit.
Just behind Østberg was teammate Kris Meeke, who outpaced Dani Sordo.
Ott Tänak, Robert Kubica, Sordo and Lorenzo Bertelli completed the top 10, while New Zealander Hayden Paddon was 16th after spinning his Hyundai i20.
Earlier in the evening, tens of thousands of fans packed historic streets in the former mining town of Guanajuato to create a crackling atmosphere for the ceremonial start.
Music and dancing filled the streets and the rally roared into life with fireworks, searchlights and clouds of confetti as the WRC car dived into a 17th century cobbled tunnel on the 1.01 km street stage.
Neuville stopped the clocks two-tenths of a second ahead of surprise package Lorenzo Bertelli. But the young Belgian admitted his run wasn’t perfect.
“My pace notes weren’t 100 percent right. I was a bit late on the brakes in the last right-hand bend and we went wide. Not the best start, but we have a good time so I have to be pleased,” he said.
Bertelli topped the times for a long while in his Ford Fiesta RS. The Italian was relaxed after his FWRT team’s seafreight container, packed with service park equipment, tools and spares, finally arrived at 2am on Thursday after a delayed journey from Europe.
After the icy tarmac and snow of the first two rounds, the conditions on Rally Guanajuato Mexico could spring some drivers back into title contention.
Mexico is the first of a run of six loose-surface rallies and the first where drivers at the head of the field are forced to sweep a clean line for the cars behind.
In Mexico’s expected hot and dry conditions, first on the road is tough going. The layer of fine, loose gravel covering the stages is thicker than at any other round, making the road-sweeping task as bad as it gets.
As championship leader, Ogier has the dubious honour of being road-opener on Friday and Saturday. The situation won’t be much better for Thierry Neuville and Andreas Mikkelsen, who start second and third.
Drivers lower in the standings, and therefore the start order, should benefit from a progressively cleaner road and better grip. For those who scored poorly in Monte-Carlo or Sweden, it’s a golden opportunity to bounce back.
Title challenger Jari-Matti Latvala hopes his start position of fourth will help make up for a no-score in Sweden.
“After the disappointment in Sweden I feel positive about going to Mexico. I will have an ideal start position for the conditions and now I have to make best use of it,” he said.
Fifth in the championship, Ostberg is another hoping to make up lost ground.
“From what we have seen previously, on the first pass especially it’s a big disadvantage to be first. I’ll go there fifth on the road this time and I think that should be beneficial. It’s something I have to take advantage of right from the start,” Ostberg said.