March Madness in Mexico – WRC Round 2

Sebastian Loeb on SS19 at Rally Mexico
Sebastian Loeb on SS19 at Rally Mexico

March madness in Mexico bring on thoughts of the San Felipe 250 complete with taco stands, drunk crazy fans inches from the cars on Zoo Road, dueling mariachi bands playing late into the night, four foot whoops  and plastering the town with Steeekers.  This however is a different story of Mexico.

After a one year hiatus the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) returned to Leon, Mexico for Round Two of the 2010 championship with the Corona Rally Mexico.   Following the opening round in Sweden this was the first full gravel rally of the season and the warm weather would be a welcome change from the -20 degree temperatures of Scandinavia.

Leon is situated in the state of Guanajuato and is a major leather producer in the region as well as a large hub for business, so instead of taco carts, souvenir shops, luchador masks and topless bars the city is full of malls with nothing but shoes, corporate buildings and high end restaurants including an ice bar.  The state itself has a European flare with narrow cobblestone streets, castles (yes, castles in Mexico) and dealerships for many auto brands not seen in the US like Renault, Seat and Peugeot.

Ken Block at ceremonial start posing with fans
Ken Block at ceremonial start posing with fans

American driver Ken Block would also be making his WRC debut in an M Sport  built Ford Focus RS WRC 08 with his co driver Alex Gelsomino for the Monster World Rally Team.  2007 Formula 1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen has also joined the WRC  full time in 2010 after being let go from Scuderia Ferrari in favor of Fernando Alonso.  Kimi is driving a Citroen C4 WRC for the Citroen Junior Team.

Finland’s Mikko Hirvonen of the BP Ford Abu Dhabi team was victorious in Round One and was looking good to give six time World Champion Sebastian Loeb a run for his money in Mexico but there would be many surprises in store for racers and fans as the week progressed.

In terms of geographic area WRC Rally Mexico  is the most compact and has the shortest overall distance of the championship.  In total the rally would cover 354.6 km over 22 special stages.  Leg one and two featured three specials in the morning, then back to town for a short street stage at Rally HQ, back to the country to run the morning three stages again, with a final trip back to town for two runs on the Rally Cross track as part of a super special stage.

The action started on Thursday with a 5.18km shakedown stage for the drivers to check setups and do any last minute testing on the cars.  The course featured two water crossings, one rather shallow that the drivers could actually skip over if taken at high speed and a second much deeper crossing that wreaked havoc on the cars and provided plenty of work for the mechanics.  The massive displacement of water destroyed many fan shrouds and air ducting as well as deforming  bellypans.

That evening all of the drivers assembled in the city of Guanajuato for the ceremonial start.  The city is full of very narrow cobblestone streets, archways, underground tunnels with exposed rock walls and even two castles.  It is also incredibly hard to navigate even with a GPS system with roadmaps.  I have spent some time in Europe and previously had thought some of those towns were hard to navigate, never again.  This is by far the most confusing, and difficult city to get around I have ever experienced.  I spent two hours trying to find the start area while I was within 300 yards of it and finally had to acquire a human GPS (a local) to find my way.  Despite the nav issues Guanajuato is a beautiful city with many cool things to see.

The ceremonial start began with the cars and drivers lining up in front of the Teatro Juarez .   The cars were parked and for 30 minutes the drivers hung out and mingled . The street was lined with thousands of fans clamoring for autographs and photos with their favorite drivers.  The level of fan access to stars on the world stage was impressive and well appreciated by the spectators.  Most of the drivers were gracious and spent lots of time with the fans including Ken Block, Dani Sordo, Jari-Matti Latvala, Mikko Hirvonen and Sebastien Loeb.  Kimi Raikkonen was clearly not accustomed to the fan access and looked to be longing for his F1 days when he could hide in his motorhome instead of interacting with fans as he leaned on his car and sulked.

Petter Solberg on SS1
Petter Solberg on SS1

Racing officially began Friday morning with SS1, Alfaro 1.  Former Subaru Factory driver and double World Champion turned privateer Petter Solberg layed it down early winning the first special by 9.8 seconds over Citroen Jr. driver Sebastien Ogier followed by Sordo, Loeb and Latvala.  Hirvonen was first off the line throughout day one which is a disadvantage in gravel rallies, particularly in Mexico.  The loose surface and rough (by WRC standards) roads are often difficult for the first few drivers who end up cleaning the surface for the later drivers.  It makes enough of a time difference that drivers have been known to check up and drop a few spots at the end of leg two to get more grip in the final leg.

Solberg’s speed stuck with him as he also won SS2, 3, 5 and 6 giving him a lead of 15 seconds over Ogier at the conclusion of the 137.24 km of Leg one with Loeb in third.  American Block was down 4:33.2 to Solberg.  The biggest news of day belonged to Kimi Raikkonen on SS7, El Cubiete 2.  The end of the stage switch backed down a mountain into a small town and at the top of the closing decent the F1 star went off the mountain rolling several times and ending his rally early.  Kimi is off to a rough start in the WRC as he also got himself stuck in the snow several times in Sweden.

For Leg Two the start order would be based on leg one’s overall times.  Loeb went to work on the field early and took advantage of his third starting spot by winning Special Stage 10, Ibarrilla 1 by 10.3 seconds over Hirvonen.  Solberg dropped back to fifth.  Block, Matthew Wilson and Dani Sordo all had offs on SS10.  While Sordo was able to continue both Wilson and Block were done for the day.  Both crashed in the same spot in a high speed corner, going wide dropping a wheel into a ditch.

Ken Block during SS1 with view of Leon in the background
Ken Block during SS1 with view of Leon in the background

After the off Block said “It was a bit of a rookie mistake, I just did not have this loose section of braking into the corner noted and I came in a little bit too quick.  By the time I realized how loose the braking was it was too late.”

On SS11 Duarte 1 Loeb kept the hammer down and claimed the overall lead over Solberg by 5.2 seconds but Solberg held strong with a second place finish on the stage followed by Latvala, Hirvonen and Ogier.  At the end of SS12, Derramadero 1 Loeb extended his lead to 16.6 seconds and Ogier moved into second overall just 1.9 seconds ahead of Solberg.  Back in town at the Coca Cola Street Stage Loeb continued to lead  but Solberg was able to battle back to second over Ogier.

Loeb again won all three afternoon specials but Solberg was able to hold on to second place.  The biggest crowds of the weekend were on Derramadero where the stage featured a large jump at the bottom of a small hill.  Much like Borrego or Ojos the fans came out the night before or early in the morning a made it a day long fiesta.  Unlike the spots in Baja however vendors took advantage of the large crowds and the area was packed to the brim with mobile bars, swag vendors and food service.  One of the bars even went so far as to offer a VIP area with bottle service.  The area was also heavily staffed with police and medical service people and compared to Baja the fans were fairly mild and controlled.

Loeb took the win again on Super Special number three but Ogier stepped up to win number four.  When the dust settled on Leg Two Loeb was in the lead by 55.5 seconds over Petter Solberg and Ogier third 2.7 seconds back over 158.82km.

The short Leg Three was to feature three gravel stages and one super special but SS20 was cancelled due to safety and security concerns with massive crowds of spectators.  The day opened with SS19, Guanajuatito the longest special of the rally at 29.12km.  Early in the stage at 3km in the racers crossed a deep river to the delight of the few spectators that chose to hike into the stage.  Junior driver Ogier continued to impress and won the stage by 4.1 seconds over Solberg with Latvala third.  Loeb dropped back to sixth on the stage but retained his overall lead by 40.2 seconds.  Block also returned to the race after fixing his suspension in service the previous day and he finished the stage 42.3 seconds behind Ogier.

From SS19 the drivers continued on to SS21, Comanjilla that covered 17.94km.  Solberg turned it up again and won the stage by 0.8 seconds over Ogier and Sordo 2.5 off the lead.  Loeb was sixth with a 26.1 overall lead and Block dropped back to 16th on the stage.

Coming into SS22 the final super special and stage of the rally Loeb had a comfortable lead but the battle for the rest of the podium real estate was as tight as ever with Ogier in second just 0.6 seconds on third place Solberg.  The super special was a 4.42km rallycross stage with tarmac, dirt, grass, several jumps and even a small water crossing.

Few knew that Solberg’s privateer C4 Citroen was special in that “it goes to 11”, and rode on tyres  that were matched perfect and staggered special.  Solberg put the features to use and won the stage by a healthy 1.4 seconds over Dani Sordo to earn second overall just .6 seconds ahead of Ogier.

Later that afternoon during the podium ceremony Loeb looked almost bored after winning his fourth Rally Mexico but Solberg was a hurricane of emotion with his second place finish.  Solberg had a trying season in 2009 with an old car after Subaru left the WRC and though he got a current spec car for this season he also suffered a terrible first round in Sweden, so his second place finish was that much sweeter for his tiny crew.  For comparison the Solberg team brought just 12 people to Mexico and hired three locals where as the Citroen factory team brought close to 200 personnel.

Petter Solberg on the podium celebrating 2nd place
Petter Solberg on the podium celebrating 2nd place

After the race Solberg said “Me and Ogier had a big fight. He is a professional sportsman. Okay it was better for me on Friday and I built up a good lead. I needed to lead after the first day to play the game with Seb (Loeb) and Ogier. First on the road was also good practice for me for later this year… I dealt with it. I started yesterday flat out. Okay it was tricky and I lost time. It ended up with me and Ogier very close.”  he continued “Sébastien (Loeb) told me ‘you are too old’, then my brother (Henning Solberg) said ‘come on!’. I really focused on the road section and analyzed the stage. I was running each corner of the stage through my mind and, starting seventh, I was running on the stage to see him (Ogier) driving.”

While Loeb took the win the battle between Solberg and Ogier was clearly the show to watch.  Look for some good results from Solberg throughout the season as well.  The season resumes April 1st with the Jordan Rally.

Results:

  1. Sébastien Loeb
  2. Petter Solberg
  3. Sébastien Ogier
  4. Mikko Hirvonen
  5. Jari-Matti Latvala
  6. Henning Solberg
  7. Federico Villagra
  8. Xavier Pons
  9. Martin Prokop
  10. Armindo Aaraujo
  11. Toshi Arai
  12. Nicolas Fuchs
  13. Miguel Angel Baldoni
  14. Benito Guerra
  15. Dani Sordo
  16. Gianluca Linari
  17. Matthew Wilson
  18. Ken Block

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