What can Tänak achieve first on the road?

The championship leader will be at more of a disadvantage than his rivals on Friday

WRC 2023

Ott Tänak might be leading the World Rally Championship for the first time since 2019, but that will be put to the test on this weekend’s Rally México, as it means he’ll be starting first on the road.

Being first on the road can often be a disadvantage, especially on gravel events, but with the surface in México being so rough, it is more precarious than other rallies.

Tänak is fully aware of this though, and admits that Friday will prove to be important at signaling what might be possible for the remainder of the weekend.

“Let’s see how it works out. For sure the Friday is quite crucial for us,” he told DirtFish.

“I’ve seen before when you open the road here you can do a perfect day and you can still be quite far in the order.”

With that in mind, the 35-year-old has one objective: to not be first on the road come Saturday.

“First the target is to get some cars in front of us for Saturday morning,” he added, “and from there on we need to try and climb back.”

This weekend will be the first that an M-Sport car leads the pack away on day one since Rally Australia in 2018.

But team principal Richard Millener understands the task at hand for his driver, especially since the WRC hasn’t visited México since 2020.

“We’ve got to be sensible. We know it’s going to be difficult here, especially with the roads not being used by Rally1 cars for a good few years,” he said.

“OK there was the rally here last year but quite a small entry and the roads kind of get back to how they always are after a year, so we know we will probably be at quite a disadvantage on the first day but again tire wear will probably come into it as well and maybe we can take a little bit of an advantage there.

“But the goal here is to come away with some points and consolidate where we are. Many people have won from first on the road so it’s not impossible, but the goal at the end of the day is to keep the points to keep us ahead.”

WRC 2023

The key words there are ‘not impossible’. But that’s where Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala has a contrasting opinion.

“I must say that starting the first car on the road, it’s almost impossible to win here in México,” he explained.

“I would say the first two cars [are] very difficult. I would say if your road position is about starting from the car number four, when you are on the road, then your chances are there that you can fight for the win.

“But normally the first two is not really [a] chance, three, if you have a very good run, then you can have a chance.”

The route which the drivers face on Friday, with the 18 mile El Chocolate test also featuring on the first day, is something Latvala believes will hinder those starting higher up even more.

“But it has a big meaning because these stages what is the difference is, if the stages would be a bit different way [than] what it is,” he added.

“But now when you have the El Chocolate on Friday, which is very, very technical, a lot of slow speed places, a lot of slow, slow accelerations out from the corners.

“So these accelerations, you lose so much time. But if you had fast stages rather than slow, then the difference would be smaller.”

With Tänak at the front on the first full day, what does that mean for his rivals?

Thierry Neuville – who will be starting third on the road – believes he has to make the most of his position as those behind may also run into problems with the stones and dust that will be thrown onto the course by the cars ahead.

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“It’s hard to say now but we know that against our main competitors except probably Elfyn [Evans] who is running just behind, we have a better road position so we need to benefit from that,” he said.

“After there are some really fast guys coming behind – they should be faster than us on the first day with the amount of cleaning.

“But I think it can be a challenging first day for them as well because there are lots of stones in El Chocolate on the road or along the road which might make it a bit more challenging for the cars behind.

“So I hope that in the first one we have a bit of a cleaner stage, less stones and just fight against the dust. But I don’t know, let’s see.”