When Mexico gave WRC the longest stage of a generation

Sundays are often a docile affair these days, but in 2016 Mexico's penultimate 50 mile stage tested drivers to the limit

Jari-Matti Latvala

In the modern era, Sundays in the World Rally Championship tend to be fairly docile affairs compared to the two gruelling days that have come before. The leg ends earlier, comprises fewer stages and, if the leading positions are settled, Sundays tend to offer up less drama and excitement as a result.

But not in México. Always keen to be different, the organizer of Rally México upped the ante back in 2016 and refused to conform.

Instead of the usual cloverleaf pattern of two stages repeated – the second of that pair being run as the powerstage on the second pass – the 2016 Rally México itinerary included just two stages, and no repeats. But a monster was lurking within.

Guanajuatito had been a fixture in the Rally México schedule since 2006, but not in this renamed Guanajuato guise. An extra 15 miles had been found, using sections of the famous El Brinco stage, making the test a mammoth 50 miles long (80km) – the longest stage included in the WRC for some 30 years, and therefore the longest of any of the drivers’ careers.

Rally Mexico 2016

There was therefore no Sunday drive for event leader Jari-Matti Latvala. He had over 1m30s in hand over his second-placed Volkswagen team-mate Sébastien Ogier on Saturday night, which on any other rally would’ve been enough to feel safe. But with the punishing Guanajuato stage lying in wait, he couldn’t relax.

“Physically you can drive, but mentally to keep focused for almost one hour, it’s going to be, I think, really, really hard,” predicted local driver Benito Guerra, who was driving a Ford Fiesta WRC that weekend.

And that challenge extended to both sides of the car too: “I think I will maybe put a mark on my pacenotes where there are some long straight lines coming to have time to take a little bit of water,” said Julien Ingrassia, co-driver to Ogier.

“It’s just a question of throat and speaking [for so long], I think we need to think about our body, we need to rehydrate.”

Just to underline the point, Ingrassia would be reading 106 pages of pacenotes to Ogier as the pair tackled the monstrous stage. A herculean effort. And despite each of the remaining 11 World Rally Cars beginning at three-minute intervals, when the final starter Latvala got underway, first-on-the-road Guerra was still making his way through the stage.

But despite this simply awesome challenge, drivers came to the end of it mostly in one piece – despite brake problems and tire wear issues for a number of crews. Mads Østberg was so thrilled to have conquered the beast that when he arrived to the stop control, he pulled out a football shirt with #80 on the back that read ‘I survived Guanajuato’.

It was Ogier who perhaps unsurprisingly set the pace given his famous tire saving abilities, beating Latvala by 25.3s. His stage-winning time? A meaty 48m06.8s.

But that wasn’t enough to deny Latvala the ultimate prize. With just one stage to go Latvala still led by over a minute and duly protected his advantage to become the first non-Sébastien to win Rally México in the WRC since 2005.

It would ultimately prove to be Latvala’s final win for Volkswagen and the last time a stage this long has featured in the World Rally Championship.