A crushing five-hour rally victory doesn’t usually warrant too much analysis, but there was something rather special about Harri Rovanperä’s Rally México win 20 years ago, in 2002. This wasn’t just a strong result for the works Peugeot driver but the dawning of a new era.
It was no accident that Peugeot Sport arrived in North America with a pukka 206 WRC for Rovanperä and co-driver Risto Pietiläinen. It sensed an opportunity to increase its brand awareness in the region, but perhaps more importantly its presence indicated just how serious the Rally México organizer was about making it to the World Rally Championship.
And it was very serious. Very serious indeed. Four years earlier for example, Rally México moved to León, Guanajuato. But this wasn’t done in search of simply a new base, but a host city capable of welcoming the world’s best rally drivers and teams.
The addition of Rovanperä to the 2002 entry list was the latest shot in the arm the organizer needed. The rallying world was fully paying attention, and Peugeot was more than happy to play its part.
“Our victory was never assumed,” said legendary Peugeot Sport director Corrado Provera at the time.
“We were not here to smash the opposition, not at all. The organizing team has a passion and we have felt that very strongly, it is their insurance for the future and we feel they deserve recognition.
“The scenery here is fantastic and the stages are very good; demanding but fast and not excessively rough. The organization has been good, there is huge enthusiasm and an incredible commitment to the World Rally Championship.”
Rovanperä’s performance was therefore more of a mission statement than a rally victory. He won all 22 of the rally’s stages to beat local driver Carlos Izquierdo’s Group N Mitsubishi and then declared the rally to be “great”.
“Risto and I have really enjoyed it,” Rovanperä continued. “The scenery is quite special and there’s a good mixture of stages which makes it interesting for us.”
Rally manager Patrick Suberville was, understandably, delighted to have hosted the reigning world manufacturers champion and one of its official drivers. But it didn’t just give Rally México some important international profile, it allowed the event organizer to make its already great event even better.
“We are pleased with the way the event ran and have learned a lot from this experience,” said Suberville.
“We were delighted to have Peugeot Sport enter our rally, not only to raise our profile and help people to realize we are very serious about the World Rally Championship, but also to learn from them.
“We now fully understand the needs and expectations of a world championship team and happily many things worked out perfectly for them. Having learned a lot from Peugeot, we are confident we can do everything correctly should we have all the other works teams in the event.”
Was 2002 the key to México’s WRC debut in 2004? It would be unfair to put it down to just one element, but it was certainly a seismic moment for the rally.
Two decades later, now with a son who’s just won the latest round of the world championship, Rovanperä is back for Rally of Nations Guanajuato. It would be foolish to write off another Rovanperä Méxican entry having just as profound an effect on another Rally México’s bid to make the WRC, wouldn’t it.