A rally turned 007 mission

Jari-Matti Latvala

How the WRC ended up in Mexico City’s Zocalo, the famous plaza in ‘Spectre’.

It’s January and the telephone’s ringing in the Rally Mexico office. Two months before the third round of the World Rally Championship starts and the telephone is rarely quiet. But if things are busy now, they’re just about to get a whole lot busier.

“The mayor of Mexico City’s on the phone. He wants to talk to you.”

You is Patrick Suberville, rally director.

“I understand you’re the man who organises Rally Mexico,” says the voice at the other end, “I just wondered if you wanted to do something in the city this year?”

The immediate response was positive. Hugely positive. But once Suberville was off the phone, reality bit and bit hard.

He says: “We had already arranged our route for the rally, the start was only two months away. I told my team, no, no way. We can’t. It’s crazy to even think about it. The route is done already and the teams have made all of their plans. They’ve even bought their plane tickets.”

But his second in command Gilles Spitalier wouldn’t listen. Like Suberville, he’d seen Formula E, Formula 1 and the World Endurance Championship all pass through Mexico City and he wasn’t about to let the rally’s moment slip.

“Gilles wouldn’t give up,” says Suberville. “We had been talking about doing something in Mexico City for six years, but we didn’t expect this opportunity to come along. We went down to Mexico City and had a look around.”

A plan was formulated to close and compete on some of the city streets previously used by Red Bull’s Formula 1 Road Show.

“We showed the mayor what we were thinking of doing, where we would like to take the stage,” says Suberville. “He looked at them and said: “This all looks a bit too complicated, why don’t you do something in the square?””

Not for the first time, Suberville’s jaw hit the floor.

If the mayor had helped the team avoid some of the early bureaucracy in getting a World Rally Championship stage into Zocalo, they were about to get a taste of what James Bond and his Spectre crew went through to get sign-off on a fight as well as a flight in a helicopter over the top of Mexico’s most famous plaza.

Suberville continues: “Doing anything in the square was complicated by the fact that the city government controls one side, the federal government another side, the Archbishop controls the side with the cathedral on and then the final side is commercial.”

Anything Rally Mexico wanted to do had to be sanctioned by all four.

For the first year, the plan would be kept as simple as possible, using one street leading into the square and the square itself. But the rally car’s entry into Zocalo was going to be quite dramatic. And in the air.

“We wanted the cars to jump into the square,” said Suberville, “but we really had to be precise with where we put the jump. We had to make sure the cars landed on the road and before the sidewalk. Landing on the square itself was not an option, just in case we scratched the surface. The surface of the square is sacrosanct.

“The other concern was tyre marks. Obviously, doing donuts, we were going to be leaving rubber – very early on we had to test the rubber and make sure it could be jet-washed off.

“We also had to try to mark out the stage somehow. Let me tell you, painting lines on the square was not an option! So the solution was some really wide white and red vinyl tape. We laid some of this down and ran cars over it for a test, it worked perfectly. But what happened on the day? It rained in Mexico City for the first time in 93 days and vinyl doesn’t stick so well in the wet!”

The rain was beyond Suberville’s control, but what had to remain firmly under his control was the 50-metre flagpole, from which a 357-square-metre Mexican flag flies proudly.

“The flag belongs to the Institute for National Monuments and they were very interested in what we were doing,” says Suberville. “I’m not sure Gilles told them we might have rally cars passing the flagpole at 100mph! We said we would be putting a line of concrete barriers around the pole. Then we said we would be putting two lines of concrete barriers around the pole!

“The flagpole is a national emblem and, after dealing with them, Gilles said to me: “If we touch that flag or that pole then we’re going to prison; we’re all going to prison!”

When it came to taking over Zocalo and setting the stage up the day before, there was no time for a dress rehearsal. In fact, there was barely time to do the job for real. The WRC was in town on Thursday. Wednesday was World Woman’s Day and a major celebration in the square.

“We couldn’t get in before 10pm the night before,” says Suberville. “So we had less than 24 hours to create the opening stage of Rally Mexico. It was quite a task, but Gilles managed it perfectly. Obviously, we worked as a team, but it was Gilles who was 100 per cent behind this. Running the stage in the city was like organizing a rally in itself – sometimes you almost forgot we had the third round of the World Rally Championship to run straight afterwards as well!”

The stage itself was a success and played out without a hitch. The flag and pole remained intact, the team stayed out of jail and the rally was brought to the people.

Source: Red Bull Content Pool