- Series-leading Elfyn Evans and Thierry Neuville face fierce challenge on Mexican gravel
- Mexican drivers Benito Guerra and Ricardo Triviño chasing WRC 2 glory on home rally
LEÓN (México): Rally Guanajuato México fires into life with a spectacular ceremonial start and a pair of short street stages on the narrow cobbled roads of Guanajuato on Thursday evening.
The 17th running of one of the most popular rallies in the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) calendar has arguably the finest starting venue of all, nestled between the quaint buildings and crowded streets of México’s stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The ceremonial start attracts thousands of spectators each year and many more television viewers eager to witness the world’s finest rally drivers cross the start podium before embarking upon three days of breathtaking competition along the brutal gravel roads of the surrounding Sierra de Lobos mountains.
The championship has a new leader this year after two rounds. Welshman Elfyn Evans made a shock switch from Ford to Toyota before the start of the season and followed up a podium finish in Monte-Carlo in January with a dominant win on the shortened Rally Sweden last month.
Add in a couple of bonus points for Power Stage performances and the Toyota Yaris WRC driver has amassed 42 points and is tied with last year’s championship runner-up Thierry Neuville, the Hyundai driver leaping into contention after winning in Monte-Carlo and finishing sixth in Sweden to add to a useful haul of vital Power Stage points. Evans gets the nod to open the road courtesy of his higher finishing positions.
The Welshman said: “It’s obviously been a great start to the year with the team. In a way, México is quite like the first two rallies of the year, in that it has its own specific challenges that he have to try and adapt to. It’s another new surface for us to get used to with a new car. Leading the championship does mean we will be opening on the road on Friday, which will not make it easy for us. But we almost have to forget that and just focus on the job in hand.”
With Evans and Neuville charged with running first and second – a distinct disadvantage on gravel surfaces where the road surface cleans markedly as cars pass – six-time World Champion Sébastien Ogier has a superb chance to close the five-point gap on the leaders in the second of the Toyotas. A sixth win for the Frenchman in México would equal Sébastien Loeb’s half-dozen wins and Ogier has a superb recent record on the gravel event.
There was surprise in some quarters when Toyota announced the signing of young Finn Kalle Rovanperä, but the former Škoda rookie has repaid that faith in the best possible way with fourth on his debut in Monte-Carlo and a podium finish in Sweden. It means that the three Toyota Gazoo Racing drivers currently hold first, third and fourth in the Drivers’ Championship and Toyota has a 10-point advantage over the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team in the Manufacturers’ series.
Esappekka Lappi managed to agree a deal with the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team for the season and the talented Finn has started brightly too. He was fourth in the south of France and finished fifth in Sweden to hold a similar position in the title race.
This time last year, Ott Tänak had amassed 47 points from two rallies and had a seven-point lead in the World Championship that he went on to win for the first time. The switch from Toyota to Hyundai in the close season could have got off on a better footing, however, and a big crash in Monte-Carlo was followed by second overall in Sweden for the Estonian. He now has 20 points and holds sixth in the rankings.
Tänak is nearly back to full fitness after his opening round crash, but realises the challenge that Rally México offers. He said: “The heat and altitude make México a very specific event on the calendar. Physically, it can be tough. At altitude we don’t have as much oxygen, so our driving style needs to be smooth and flowing, while the engine power is reduced, so we have to be efficient.”
There are nine World Rally Cars in the starting line-up in México. Teemu Suninen and Gus Greensmith will be hoping for a strong weekend in the second and third of the Fords and Spaniard Dani Sordo will tackle his first WRC event of the season in the third Hyundai.
An upbeat Greensmith said: “I’m a huge fan of Rally México and it’s probably my favourite place to visit on the FIA World Rally Championship calendar. The scenery and colours of Guanajuato and the enthusiasm of the fans provide a truly special experience for everyone. I really enjoyed my time here in 2018, but it will be a completely different challenge this year. I’ve been preparing in the heat and altitude chambers so my body is definitely feeling efficient and I’m sure that will help my performance.”
But Rally Guanajuato Mexico is not all about the factory teams: three crews will take part in the newly-named WRC 2 (formerly WRC 2 Pro) section that is currently led by the absent Mads Østberg with a maximum 50 points from two wins. He has a 20-point cushion over Frenchman Adrien Fourmaux with Russia’s Nikolas Gryazin in third on 23 points.
Fourmaux has not made the trip to North America either, so Gryazin faces competition from fellow Hyundai Motorsport Norway driver Ole-Christian Veiby in the second of the NG i20s and Sweden’s Pontus Tidemand at the helm of a Toksport Škoda Fabia. Both Hyundai drivers make their first appearances in México, although Veiby recced the stages in 2017 and 2018.
Tidemand, on the other hand, won the WRC 2 category here in 2017 and 2018 and carried out a test on Monday. The Swede said: “This is a fun event. The roads are demanding but really cool to drive and I like the format, with long and short stages and the challenge of getting the most out of the car at such high altitude.”
The former WRC 2 category has now been renamed WRC 3 and a fierce battle is sure to rage between 10 drivers eager to try and finish higher than their three factory-supported rivals in the WRC 2 section.
Frenchman Eric Camilli and Finland’s Jari Huttunen lead the title race with a win and 25 points apiece, but neither has made the trip to México. Local hopes rest on the shoulders of Benito Guerra and Ricardo Triviño in their Škoda Fabias, while competition is assured from the likes of young Oliver Solberg in a Volkswagen Polo GTI, Poland’s Kajetan Kajetanowicz in another Škoda and 19-year-old Bolivian driver Marco Bulacia (Citroën C3).
Brazilian Paulo Nobre (Škoda), the experienced Chilean Alberto Heller (Ford), fellow countryman Emilio-Andrés Fernández (Škoda), Russian Radik Shaymiev (Ford) and Italy’s Gianluca Linari (Ford) round off the WRC 3 field.
Mexican driver Ricardo Cordero de Avila and Irishman John Coyne will take part in RC2 cars.
The event also marks the debut for a new Renault Clio Cup running under director Kurt Richter. The one-make series is running with the collaboration of Rally México officials and Renault Sport Racing México and has attracted four Mexican and one Argentinean crew. Local drivers Gustavo Uriostegui, Francisco Name, Diego Candano and Gerardo Basañez and Argentina’s Martin Suriani will drive Clio RSs entered in the RC5 class.
The remainder of the field are entered in the National category and are also registered for the NACAM Championship. Amongst them is the esteemed American rally and stunt driver Ken Block, who has entered the event with experienced fellow countryman Alex Gelsomino in an older-specification Ford Escort Cosworth.
There are 24 special stages planned this year and 324.95 competitive kilometres in a more compact route of 958.70km.
The El Chocolate stage of 31.45km is run twice on Friday and makes up nearly half of the day’s competitive distance, as it winds its way to over 2,700 metres above sea level. Crews will also tackle two passes through the Ortega and Las Minas tests and four super specials during the course of the day.
Saturday is again the longest day of the event, albeit by less than one kilometre, and features the classic Guanajuatito, Alfaro and Derramadero stages and three short super specials to conclude the day’s proceedings.
An extended version of the Otates stage – the longest of the event – switches from Saturday to Sunday this year and precedes a run through the new San Diego special and the Wolf Power Stage finale over the 9.64km of the El Brinco gravel that replaces the Las Minas stage that was used in 2019.
The timed action starts with the customary shakedown stage of 5.51km at Llano Grande, with the Priority 1 cars permitted to take turns on the gravel test from 10.01hrs. The shakedown is open for WRC 2, WRC 3 and other drivers until 14.20hrs.
Nikolas Gryazin, Pontus Tidemand, Benito Guerra, Marco Bulacia and Ken Block will then attend the first part of the FIA pre-event press conference (13.00hrs) for WRC 2, WRC 3 and guest drivers before WRC series leader Elfyn Evans joins Esapekka Lappi and Dani Sordo in the second section.
Competitors then transfer to a holding area in the automotive town of Silao to prepare for the ceremonial start in the centre of Guanajuato, adjacent to Teatro Juárez and the renowned Alhondiga de Granaditas museum, from 19.58hrs.
They will then tackle two passes through the Monster Energy Street Stage in the centre of Guanajuato. The slippery 1.12km special runs along the cobbled streets and through the narrow tunnels of the former mining town. The first car is due on the opening special at 20.08hrs with the second pass going live from 20.21hrs.
2020 Rally Guanajuato México – leading starters:
- Elfyn Evans (GBR)/Scott Martin (GBR) Toyota Yaris WRC
- Thierry Neuville (BEL)/Nicolas Gilsoul (BEL) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
- Sébastien Ogier (FRA)/Julien Ingrassia (FRA) Toyota Yaris WRC
- Kalle Rovanperä (FIN)/Jonne Halttunen (FIN) Toyota Yaris WRC
- Esapekka Lappi (FIN)/Janne Ferm (FIN) Ford Fiesta WRC
- Ott Tänak (EST)/Martin Järveoja (EST) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
- Teemu Suninen (FIN)/Jarmo Lehtinen (FIN) Ford Fiesta WRC
- Gus Greensmith (GBR)/Elliott Edmondson (GBR) Ford Fiesta WRC
- Dani Sordo (ESP)/Carlos del Barrio (ESP) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
2020 FIA World Rally Championship for Drivers – positions after round 2:
1. Elfyn Evans (GBR) 42pts
- Thierry Neuville (BEL) 42pts
3. Sébastien Ogier (FRA) 37pts
- Kalle Rovanperä (FIN) 30pts
5. Esapekka Lappi (FIN) 24pts
- Ott Tänak (EST) 20pts
- Teemu Suninen (FIN) 11pts
- Sébastien Loeb (FRA) 8pts
- Takamoto Katuta (JAP) 8pts
- Craig Breen (IRL) 6pts, etc
2020 FIA World Rally Championship for Manufacturers – positions after round 2:
1. Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT 73pts
2. Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT 63pts
- M-Sport Ford WRT 40pts
2020 FIA WRC 2 Championship – positions after round 2:
1. Mads Østberg (NOR) 50pts
- Adrien Fourmaux (FRA) 30pts
- Nikolas Gryazin (RUS) 23pts
- Rhys Yates (GBR) 22pts
- Ole Christian Veiby (NOR) 18pts
- Pontus Tidemand (SWE) 15pts, etc
2020 FIA WRC 3 Championship – positions after round 2:
- Eric Camilli (FRA) 25pts
- Jari Huttunen (FIN) 25pts
- Nicolas Ciamin (FRA) 18pts
- Emil Lindholm (FIN) 18pts
- Yoann Bonato (FRA) 15pts
- Johan Kristoffersson (SWE) 15pts
- Yohan Roussel (FRA) 12pts
- Eerik Pietarinen (FIN) 12pts,