If there was a Rally México to win, 2016 – the one with the 50-miler on the final – would be most people’s choice. Jari-Matti Latvala did just that, bringing his Volkswagen Polo R WRC home for his one and only León success.
The Finn tells DirtFish how he mastered arguably the toughest Rally México ever.
“Before that year this rally hadn’t gone so well for me, it wasn’t my strongest,” the now Toyota team principal said. “And the start of that season was difficult as well. I came to México with no points and my head wasn’t in such a good place.”
From Friday morning onwards, Latvala’s head got clearer and quicker by the stage as he utilized a strong place on the road through day one to lay the foundations for a confident victory, more than a minute ahead of team-mate Sébastien Ogier.
When you have less power from the engine, if you are sideways everywhere then you will kill the speed and lose all of the acceleration.Jari-Matti Latvala on why driving like a typical Finn doesn't work in Mexico
There’s a trick to winning in México. Latvala learned that trick six years ago and the team chasing the podium’s top step at next month’s Rally of Nations Guanajuato will need to learn that trick quickly.
“We know about the altitude in México,” said Latvala. “There you are driving on roads which are 2500 meters from sea level and that brings thinner air. That means you will have around 25% less power.
“Finns are a bit aggressive and attacking in the style for driving and I was like this – but when you have less power from the engine, if you are sideways everywhere then you will kill the speed and lose all of the acceleration.
“When you come from the corner sideways you really feel it on the next straight, you are losing time.
“The answer for this is to keep everything very tidy. I remember that year that I managed to get everything quite well together that I kept it clean, the driving, I followed the lines. And also I did manage to do a good tire choice in the very beginning because when you’re at a high altitude you have less power, you have less tire wear.
“Because of this many people want to use soft tires to gain traction, but I found a great balance with the hard and the soft tires. I was using the hard tires on the front and the soft ones on the rear, and that combination was really working in those conditions.”
But what about the 50 miles – or 80 kilometers – that was the Sunday morning Guanajuato stage?
Latvala took 48m32.1s to cover it. Only Ogier was quicker, by 25.3s.
“It was good,” he said. “I pushed quite hard in the middle section, but then I was losing the brakes at the rear a little bit and then for maybe the last 20 kilometers I was more in safety mode. It was a nice stage and a good challenge, but all the time I knew I had to be sensible as the leader for the rally. It was not the time to take the risk of making a big attack.”
México awaits those willing to take the risk and run the gauntlet.
“The roads are narrow, in some places really narrow,” Latvala added. “In these places, you just have to follow the line and hope there’s no rock waiting for you. If you go a little bit off the line then the rock will find you – that’s for sure. And usually, the speed can be quite high in these places, so it can make quite a big damage to the car.
“You must work hard in recce and try to be careful.”
Despite a record that shows one win from 13 starts in Guanajuato, Latvala loves the place.
He said: “When we go to México for the WRC round, it’s the same time of the year like Rally of Nations will be and you come from the winter season with Monte and Sweden in the snow and you go for the first time to feel the heat.
“The weather is always very consistent. It’s very warm, and sunny. Very rarely do you see rain – maybe two, three times max – and it’s been a very short while, the rain, then it dries out very quickly.
“Always the stages are close to the city of León, so the road sections are not so long and the roads are a very hard base, quite flowing. But then there are sections that are very difficult with the blind crests and some deep downhill brakings, so it can also be very tricky in places.
“One of the amazing things is the ceremonial start. You don’t see so many people on the starting ramp, or around it, anywhere in world as you have in Guanajuato. You come to the podium with a rally car and it’s just like, I would say a sea of people around you, it’s an amazing feeling.
“You feel like a star starting the rally over there. And then you start with the streets of Guanajuato, the old city, the mining city, and then you have cobblestones. So it’s also quite difficult with the grip level, and then there’s a couple of tunnels as well. It’s always a challenging start but a nice one, a really nice one.
“México has been a classic event in the WRC since 2004 and I definitely hope we will be back there with the WRC. Now we are in Asia, in Africa and in Europe it would be great to go to every continent and México would [mean] being back in North America.”