It’s one year to the day since what was supposed to be the final day of Rally México. Having been beaten on the Monte Carlo Rally for the first time since 2013 and having lost to his team-mate Elfyn Evans on a shortened Rally Sweden, Sébastien Ogier was on course to get his championship bid back on track with his maiden victory for Toyota and a record-equalling sixth Rally México victory.
But that final day never happened. By Saturday afternoon, the decision was made that Rally Mexico would end after Saturday and there would be no running on Sunday.
Instead of the iconic El Brinco powerstage, Sunday’s main event became a scramble for all of the teams and drivers to return home with an ever-increasing list of travel bans and canceled flights due to the fast-raging COVID-19 pandemic.
A year on, with the wisdom of 12 months of coronavirus lessons, we look back at David Evans’ view from inside the Mexico paddock on a weekend where the rallying was overshadowed by a myriad of confusion, shock, denial and panic.
It’s breakfast on Thursday morning, and Ogier joins my DirtFish colleague Colin Clark and I. He makes his feelings very clear, he’s not comfortable with what the World Rally Championship is doing in Rally México. He’s considering his options.
The potential for the six-time world champion packing his bag and going home before Rally México had even begun was real.
Ogier’s success has brought him the freedom to speak his mind. The points he made about the potential for bringing a virus from Europe and further infecting a country which, when the WRC landed, had just 12 cases, were entirely valid.
And totally ignored.
Through Thursday, Ogier remained a lone voice among the drivers – with current champion Ott Tänak and others steadfastly refusing to answer questions on the spread of the coronavirus, preferring instead to focus on the right ramp angle for improved traction on a swept second run of El Chocolate.
Into Friday and the service park is apparently busy with emperor Neros fiddling as the inferno builds and burns.
The approach, according to those close to the meetings with the regional government, was one of apparent resignation that the virus was coming anyway...David Evans
Shortly after lunch, the state of Guanajuato sought to extinguish the flames with a press release stating: “There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 virus in Guanajuato, so all private and public activities, as well as massive events such as the FIA World Rally Championship can continue without any problem.
“So far, the state’s Department of Health has only identified cases classified as suspicious, but none have been confirmed so according to the epidemiological surveillance protocol, there is no reason to cancel public events.”
Having invested heavily in the rally, the state of Guanajuato was unwilling to risk putting people off coming into León, so, no, there was no need to close the service park to spectators. That wasn’t a good idea. Apparently. Astonishingly.
The approach, according to those close to the meetings with the regional government, was one of apparent resignation that the virus was coming anyway…
Later on Friday, it was a different type of stage that took the attention of much of the service park as Donald Trump laid out his combative measures – measures which hinted at a further exclusion of Europeans entering the USA.
With borders closing and airlines talking of shutting down routes, an atmosphere of panic began to take hold of the service park.
The crews maintained their focus on what lay ahead of them, trusting their travel to the senior team management.
The DirtFish team hunkered down for an hour of conference calling with Seattle, then got back to the task in hand with a commitment to temporarily put aside chatter about suspected cases and maintain the delivery of news, views and videos from round three.
By Saturday morning, the teams had started to push harder for cancelation as it became increasingly difficult to find routes back to Europe. Agreement was found with the FIA and WRC Promoter, which in turn convinced the rally organizer of the need to bring the thing to an end.
The concern and the focus were now very much on getting people home. But with the meetings moving towards Saturday lunchtime, the feeling was to let the rally run on until close of play on leg two, thus ensuring the required 75% of the route was completed and full points could be awarded.
The final piece of the jigsaw was to convince the state of Guanajuato to give this one up. Gaining local organizer support was crucial in this and, as the stakeholders pushed for that, word started to get out.
Walking through the service park as the cars were coming in following the morning loop was quite possibly the most bizarre feeling of all. As some of the team worked on the cars to get them back out for the afternoon, their colleagues were literally throwing bits and pieces into packing cases and breaking the place down at some rate of knots.
By 3pm or so the news was out. Rally México would be a two-dayer, finishing on Saturday night.
Through the afternoon, a different race began. The race to get home.