Nobody quite knew what to expect from Rally México when it featured on the World Rally Championship calendar for the very first time back in 2004. Many drivers ended up faltering. But not Markko Märtin. He rose to the fore, kicking off his championship challenge in the process.
Most of the WRC field had no prior experience of the Mexican stages but at first glance, it looked no different from any other gravel event.
“I think after the recce it looked like a very straightforward rally,” Märtin explained to DirtFish.
“Normal gravel rally, no big deal. But of course, it turned out to be a lot more punishing, not too rough, but it just took its toll on cars.”
Petter Solberg was the first driver to get a handle on the Mexican stages, storming into the lead. But on SS4 he dropped his Subaru into a ditch and was subsequently penalized for receiving outside assistance after pushing his car into service when the battery failed.
Solberg’s issues meant Sébastien Loeb took over at the helm. Märtin, meanwhile, was struggling.
He had issues with his Ford Focus RS WRC and it nearly resulted in him retiring from the rally early on after a huge moment on SS4.
“I don’t remember the problem but we had a huge sixth gear spin,” explained Märtin.
“We were going along the road sideways for I don’t know 200 meters. It was quite a big moment.
“That I remember and that cost us a bit because it was on a straight road more or less and we had to stop and reverse and get going again.
“I had that quite early on so I was already behind I think from the beginning.”
By the end of the first day Märtin was fourth on the rally, nearly a minute off the lead. But the following day, his luck began to change.
Marcus Grönholm dropped out of the running on SS5 with broken power steering, promoting Märtin to third. One stage later, the Ford driver was up to second, albeit over half a minute adrift of rally leader Loeb.
On SS7 Märtin miraculously took the lead of the rally. Loeb had looked so comfortable out in front, but like so many others, he also ran into problems, retiring from the stage with an oil sump problem.
Carlos Sainz looked as though he was going to mount a challenge for the rally win, closing Märtin’s gap down to 11.8 seconds on SS12. But on the following stage, he fell completely out of contention, losing over a minute with a spin.
Drivers were running into issue after issue, hampering their chances of fighting for the win, but for Märtin everything was on his side. Not even a small fire aboard his Ford Focus was enough to prevent him from winning the rally.
Märtin eventually crossed the line as the victor, beating team-mate François Duval by 42.5 seconds to become the inaugural WRC Rally México winner in the process.
The title challenge was on, and although Märtin didn’t ultimately succeed, Mexico set him up to have the best year of his WRC career.