Norwegian neighbors Mads Østberg and Eyvind Brynildsen have combined to power their country to the top of the Rally of Nations Guanajuato rankings at the end of a second day of fierce competition on the roads around León.
If Friday was all about the streets and the ceremony of the legendary Guanajuato start, Saturday stages provided the mainstay of Méxican competition.
Team Norway came into the day trailing Team México 4, after Francisco Name (Subaru WRX) and Gustavo Uriostegui (Renault Clio) turned on the pace to lead after the asphalt and cobbles combination.
But Norway moved into the lead on Saturday’s opening Guanajuatito test and remained in charge for the rest of the day. Østberg (Škoda) and Brynildsen (Mitsubishi) might have been beaten on points on some stages, but a 134-point advantage demonstrated their pace and their ability to work together as a team.
“It’s been a great day,” said Østberg, who posted the individual fastest time on all 10 stages run through Friday and Saturday. “I’m happy to have been fastest on every stage and to lead the overall classification, Eyvind has had a great day as well and it’s fantastic to be in this position for Team Norway.”
Østberg made his debut in a Škoda Fabia R5 in Qatar earlier this season, but his Team Norway machine still took some getting used to.
“I wasn’t so comfortable in the morning,” he said. “I was trying to understand the car and how to drive it. I was pushing hard and we had a good rhythm. OK, the guys were getting quicker in the afternoon, but we still managed to win all the stages. We have had to fight all the way.
“I think we will mix our approach tomorrow,” he added. “Of course we want to win for Team Norway, but at the same time it would be nice to win all of the stages.”
Brynildsen’s speed aboard his Lancer Evo X was superb, with the younger of the two Norwegians demonstrating how much pace he still has to offer.
Team Mexico 2, Ricardo Cordero Sr (Citroën C3) and Gerardo Hernández (Mazda 2) won Otates, while Sebastian Barbu (Renault Clio) and Nikki Schelle (Ford Fiesta Rally5) gathered the most points for Team Europe on SS5. The Europeans eased their way ahead of Team Italy and remain in second place ahead of Sunday’s five stages.
Schelle said: “It’s been a lot of fun to drive with this car. With the altitude, I don’t think we have all 150bhp. Up the hills it can be quite a long story – but it’s really a lot of fun! I went off the road one time today, just a little bit. Sometimes, in my head, I am still 18 years old and so I needed to calm down.”
The battle for the bottom step of the podium is incredibly close with just four points separating Team France (Adrien Fourmaux, Ford Fiesta Rally2 and Felipe Suberville, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X) and Team Ecuador (Javier Serrano, Ford Fiesta Rally5 and Diego Serrano, Renault Clio).
Frenchman Fourmaux admitted he’d enjoyed his first day of full competition in México.
“We are quite happy with our day,” he said. “It was nice to drive in the hot conditions and the pace is coming, so this is good. The grip was changing quite lot today – we had some fast sections where we needed to make sure we’re not too sideways because it’s very hard for the engine at this altitude. In the afternoon, there was a nice line coming, but when you got the rear out of line and in the loose it was interesting!
“We tried some different setups for the car and this gave us some more good things to learn. It’s so nice to be here competing – the place is incredible and it would be fantastic to come back here with the Rally1 car in WRC next year.”
Having started the day second, Team Italy (Alberto Batistolli, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX and Andrea Mabellini Renault Clio) slipped to fifth but they were still very much within sight of the podium
Team Mexico 3 (Emilio Velazquez, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX and Patrice Spitalier, Renault Clio) is the leading home combination in sixth, just ahead of Team Mexico 1 – the Guerra family squad.
Benito Jr has been superb through Saturday, with his Škoda running third in an overall classification behind Fourmaux and Østberg. Unfortunately Benito Sr retired in the first run at Otates with a technical problem aboard his Mitsubishi.
United Kingdom is eighth, pegged back early on by a puncture for Matthew Wilson, with México 2 and Finland rounding out the top 10. Harri Rovanperä, the winner of Rally México 20 years ago, suffered a wild moment on SS7 where he ran wide and hit some racks, dislodging the rear bumper of his Citroën DS3 R5.
Winners of Rally of Nations when it last and first ran back in 2009, Team Spain, is highly unlikely to retain the title with just 58 points after 11 of 16 stages. Nil Solans retired on stage four while team-mate Pep Bassas only went two stages further.
Despite lying an early seventh after stage one, it’s been an even more disappointing day for the contest’s only Asian pairing, Team Japan. Neither Hiroki Arai nor Hirotaka Ishii made it beyond SS3 – as Ishii’s Fiesta left Guanajuatito on the back of a flatbed trailer, its front-left suspension broken.