For the first time in over five months, the World Rally Championship returns to the rocky stuff for the first gravel round since October, and therefore the first of the 2023 season.
So far, we’ve been treated to an entertaining season with two drivers (Sébastien Ogier and Ott Tänak) winning events for two different teams (Toyota and M-Sport Ford).
Can Hyundai get in on the act this week? Can Kalle Rovanperä tick off his first rally win as World Rally champion? Or will it be up to a familiar returning face – who has a shot at a record-breaking victory in México just as he did in Monte Carlo – to show them all home?
Here’s DirtFish’s guide to Rally México 2023:
#8 Ott Tänak/Martin Jarveojä (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 1st-5th-2nd
Best México result: 2nd (2019 & 2020)
Tänak never led the world championship throughout any of his three seasons at Hyundai, but it’s taken him just two rallies to restore his name to the top upon his M-Sport Ford return.
That will feed confidence, but both Tänak and M-Sport Ford are acutely aware that there is work to do for him to sustain this position.
And unfortunately, that Swedish success comes with the ultimate price of having to open the road in México on Friday. Perhaps more so than any other rally, road-sweeping makes a huge difference here and that could potentially rob Tänak of any hope of even a podium finish this weekend.
It’ll certainly be a big ask for him to claim his first Rally México win in 2023.
#69 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 4th-2nd-12th
Best México result: 5th (2020)
In some respects, Kalle Rovanperä’s world title defense has been something of a slow burner, with a strong second place on the Monte and a muted fourth in Sweden.
He hasn’t won a rally since the WRC was last on gravel in New Zealand and he claimed his world championship.
But the devil is in the detail. Rovanperä has still won more stages than anybody else this season and claimed more powerstage points too. So, if you had any doubts that he’d somehow lost his touch, think again.
Second on the road on Friday isn’t the optimum place to be, but then it’s a damn sight better than first – a position Rovanperä has held for over 12 months now.
On his one previous visit to México, he snared fifth overall. Expect something a bit more exciting this time around.
#11 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 3rd-3rd-1st
Best México result: 3rd (2013, 2014 & 2017)
The strength of Thierry Neuville’s 2023 campaign has somewhat flown under the radar over the first two rounds, but to deliver two consecutive podium finishes is quality.
There aren’t many WRC drivers in better form right now with Neuville on a run of four straight podium finishes that stretches back to Rally Spain and his Rally Japan win last season, and there’s a strong argument to suggest that Neuville is well placed to continue that in México too.
The scene of his first ever WRC podium, Neuville’s recent form in México isn’t red hot but he returns this year with an i20 N Rally1 that houses a strong engine – and that could be vitally important on stages that climb as high as 2700m above sea level.
And he starts in a better place on the road than both Tänak and Rovanperä, so he’ll be looking to make that count.
#33 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 5th-4th-5th
Best México result: 3rd (2019)
If there’s any of the four expected title contenders this year that’s under a bit of pressure ahead of Rally México, it’s Elfyn Evans – who’s run of recent form is bland rather than blistering.
Sweden was a knock to his confidence after a strong Monte Carlo showing that was ultimately undone by a puncture, but México is like neither of those two rallies. So, there’s no reason not to expect Evans to perform, particularly considering his tendency to go well on hot, gravel rallies.
He’ll face the usual barrage of questions about his feeling aboard the GR Yaris Rally1 this weekend, especially if he struggles for confidence early doors. But what will hurt more is if he loses further ground to Tänak or Rovanperä here.
The season is still young, but if Evans wants to be a factor in the championship race, he needs to be targeting to beat them both in México.
#17 Sébastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 1st-4th-1st
Best México result: 1st (2013, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019, 2020)
There are countless reasons why Sébastien Ogier is the favorite for victory. For a start, he’s (incredibly) the only driver on this year’s start list to have won the event before.
And he’s done so six times.
Then you consider his recent WRC form. Wins on both the Monte and Spain were sandwiched by a fourth on Japan, but across the weekend Ogier looked to be the fastest driver; a first stage puncture just ruined any of his chances of the top result.
But perhaps above all else, it’s Ogier’s road position that makes him a real favorite. The prospect of Ogier running mid-pack on the first day of a hot, gravel rally is mouth-watering given how many years he was burdened with running at the front and often found a way to still win anyway.
The only things counting against him? Skipping Sweden means he’s a little less match-fit than others, and he hasn’t yet won on gravel in a Rally1 car. But we’re clutching at straws, aren’t we…
#4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 7th-8th-22nd
Best México result: 11th (2018)
None of the above figures would convince you that Esapekka Lappi could be in for a big result in Mexico. No points-scoring finish on the event itself, and just a seventh and an eighth to shout about since he’s moved to Hyundai.
But by rights that seventh should really read third for Sweden, as Lappi was all set to grab the final spot on the podium before his tire let go on the penultimate day, threw him into a snowbank and subsequently tumbling down the leaderboard.
Knowing how that form will translate to Guanajuato is tricky, as yet again Lappi faces an all-new challenge aboard his i20 N Rally1. As a pointer though, he was very competitive on both Sardinia and Greece (the most similar events to Mexico on the calendar) last year in a Toyota.
But crucially his speed in Sweden should fill Lappi with belief that he can be a factor on round three, particularly considering his road position.
#18 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: DNF-6th-3rd
Best México result: N/A
One of two Rally México newbies within the Rally1 field, Takamoto Katsuta’s in need of a pick-me-up after his disappointing Rally Sweden.
On his first ever rally registered for Toyota manufacturer points, Katsuta was caught out by the ruts and rolled out of what had been looking like a promising event before then.
With Ogier back in the team, Katsuta is more or less free to do his own thing this week and we can expect his onus to be on learning the nuances of this event.
Consistency was Katsuta’s ace card last year and replicating that in Mexico could snare him a handy result come Sunday.
#7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Nicolas Gilsoul (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 6th-DNF-10th
Best México result: N/A
While his team-mate has grabbed all the headlines at M-Sport, Pierre-Louis Loubet has quietly been going about his business in 2023 – his first full season in the WRC.
But Rally México could be where all that changes.
Like Katsuta, it’s a totally new event to Loubet (although not to co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul who has three Mexican podiums to his name) but it’s the character of the rally that should give Loubet fans reason to be excited.
The Frenchman’s made it clear that he wants to have a push on rallies that suit him this year – and statistically that means tough gravel events like Sardinia and the Acropolis where he caught the eye last time.
Starting all the way down in eighth on the opening day, would it be such a shock to see Loubet’s name featuring at the pointy end of the leaderboard this weekend?
#6 Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 7th-DNF-5th
Best México result: 2nd (2018)
They were admittedly very quiet conspiracy theorists, but some were keen to point out that Dani Sordo had lost his touch following his off-beat performance on the Monte Carlo Rally.
Granted it wasn’t Sordo’s best ever performance in the WRC, but the i20 N Rally1 was a challenge, and the Spaniard was hamstrung without the use of his hybrid for large portions of the rally. On a bone-dry Monte, that was severely bad news for his stage times.
México should yield a return to form. For years Sordo has been a podium-scoring machine for Hyundai on rallies like this where he benefits from a good starting position, makes it count and stays out of trouble to bring home the bacon.
Let’s see if he can do just that this year.