SÉBASTIEN Ogier vaulted from fifth to lead Rally Guanajuato Mexico after a dramatic second leg on Saturday.
PHOTO: Sébastien Loeb (left) held the Rally Mexico lead for three stages on Saturday before Sébastien Ogier surged past to take the advantage into the final day (Jaanus Ree/Red Bull pic)
The world champion avoided trouble while his rivals faltered in intense heat on dirt roads and after starting more than half a minute off the lead in the morning, the Frenchman will carry a 35.9sec advantage into Sunday’s finale.
Ogier strung together four consecutive stage victories in the mountains near León in his Ford Fiesta to put him on the verge of a second season win with just 46 kms remaining.
“It’s been a perfect day. I pushed as hard as I could and it worked for us. We had a bit of tyre wear late this afternoon so I didn’t push as hard as I would have wanted,” he said.
M-Sport team principal Malcolm Wilson said Ogier’s performance was “extraordinary”.
That is the only word to describe Sébastien’s performance today,” Wilson said.
“I could sense at lunchtime that there was a glint in his eye and that he was really going to attack. That’s what he did and he’s ended up with a 35.9 second lead at the end of the day.
“It was a truly incredible drive – just Sébastien and Julien (Ingrassia co-driver) at their absolute best.”
Ogier left behind a string of disappointed drivers, none more so than returning nine-time world champion Sébastien Loeb.
The 44-year-old raised hopes of a fairytale victory at his first gravel WRC outing for almost five years when he surged into the lead on the first stage of the day and held it until the midday service break.
A front-left puncture ended the dream. Loeb conceded almost 2min 30sec when he stopped to change the wheel after hitting a stone in his Citroën C3 and plunged to fifth.
“To be honest, I hadn’t expected to be in this position before the start but it’s reassuring to know that I haven’t lost my driving skills! It was all set to be a good battle at the front until we got the puncture,” Loeb said.
“The mistake we made was to change the wheel. I wasn’t very familiar with how these tyres last and our instinct was the wrong one, probably from cross-country rallying, in fact. We would have lost a lot less time had we not stopped to change the tyre, but that’s just the way it goes.”
Teammate Kris Meeke took up the fight behind Ogier. He was only a handful of seconds adrift before a spin dropped him back, although the Ulsterman doubted he had the pace to stay in touch.
Dani Sordo began Saturday in front and the Spaniard was less than three seconds adrift of Loeb before he punctured after hitting the same stone. He was luckier and drove his Hyundai i20 to the finish losing only 30sec. He was third, 10.9sec behind Meeke.
Ott Tänak’s overnight third vanished in the opening test. The Estonian limped through the second half with a turbo boost problem in his Toyota Yaris and retired soon after.
A frustrated Andreas Mikkelsen split Sordo and Loeb in fourth. The Norwegian tried different driving techniques and modified his i20’s set-up in a bid to stem the time loss but ended in no-man’s land between them.
Championship leader Thierry Neuville endured another taxing day in his i20. As road opener, he ploughed slippery loose gravel on the surface and a series of mistakes cost more time.
He stopped for a minute in the opening stage when his engine inhaled water at a river crossing and stopped. A slow puncture later in the stage and several unplanned visits to ditches cost more time and he finished sixth.
WRC 2 leader Pontus Tidemand was seventh ahead of category second Gus Greensmith. Jari-Matti Latvala was back in the points in ninth after yesterday’s alternator-induced retirement, while Chile’s Pedro Heller completed the leaderboard.
Just three stages totalling 46.46km comprise Sunday’s finale. The rally ends with the Las Minas Power Stage, in which the fastest five drivers will score bonus points.
Outright standings after day Two (Saturday):
1. Sébastien Ogier / Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) 3:25:03.1
2. Kris Meeke / Paul Nagle (Citroen DS3 WRC) +35.9
3. Dani Sordo / Carlos del Barrio (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +46.8
4. Andreas Mikkelsen / Anders Jaeger (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +1:28.4
5. Sébastien Loeb / Daniel Elena (Citroen C3 WRC) +2:19.7
6. Thierry Neuville / Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC +4:44.6
7. Pontus Tidemand / Jonas Andersson (Skoda Fabia R5) +9:24.2
8. Gus Greensmith / Craig Parry (Ford Fiesta R5) +15:06.8
9. Jari-Matti Latvala / Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +15.59.6
10. Pedro Heller / Pablo Olmos (Ford Fiesta R5) +21:43.0