Despite Rally México being called a day early in light of the global coronavirus pandemic and increasing worry in the World Rally Championship service park, there was still plenty to take away from the first gravel event of the season. Here is DirtFish’s summary of all the major talking points.
Ogier back to his best
The six-time world champion may have preferred to not be in México at all, publicly airing his distaste that the event went ahead, but there’s no denying that Sébastien Ogier’s performance was ultra-impressive once he strapped himself into his Toyota Yaris WRC.
Ogier was being written off by a select few after the opening two rounds of the season, particularly after Sweden when he was beaten by both his team-mates.
But in México he proved why he is still the WRC’s benchmark with his ability to control a rally from the front. Taking the lead on SS4 with a strong time just as erstwhile leader Ott Tänak dropped back with suspension damage, Ogier was all of a sudden in the box seat.
He could’ve welded his foot to the floor and proved to the naysayers that he can still cut it in the pace department, but instead he chose to push where he felt he could and back off where he realised he should; consistently calculating the risk versus reward.
From all the talk of this being Ogier’s worst start to a season since 2012 (when he wasn’t even in a World Rally Car), he is now at the head of the championship in a superb position to grab a seventh title with an eight-point cushion over team-mate Elfyn Evans. Chief rivals Thierry Neuville and Tänak are 20 and 24 points behind respectively in what is already looking to be a shortened season.
Hyundai has work to do
To win titles in the WRC you of course need to be fast but you also need to be consistent. Those that prosper are those that find the perfect blend between the two.
In México, Hyundai certainly had the speed. Between its drivers Thierry Neuville, Dani Sordo and Ott Tänak, it took 15 of the 21 stage wins but only one of its drivers finished in the points. Anyone who knows team principal Andrea Adamo knows all he is concerned about is the manufacturers’ championship. Which explains why he was an unhappy man as Hyundai lost more ground to Toyota, now trailing by 21 points.
Friday was put simply, a “s**t” day – Adamo’s words, not ours. Sordo was out of the hunt on the first gravel stage with a loose radiator pipe that cost him five minutes before retiring on that very same stage in the afternoon with a new technical fault.
Neuville’s Hyundai was sidelined with an electrical issue on Friday too, leaving Tänak as the only car fighting at the front when in reality all three had the capability of challenging.
On a rally where Toyota has struggled in the past for reliability, all of its Yaris WRCs ran faultlessly to further highlight the need for Hyundai to get on top of these issues before whenever the season resumes.
Evans is prepared to be patient
Elfyn Evans looks a totally different driver now he’s swapped the blue of M-Sport for the red and white of Toyota. Evans has always had the speed within him to challenge at the front but armed with a Yaris WRC it now appears utterly effortless as his status has switched from an occasional to a constant threat.
But courtesy of his third place on the Monte and historic victory in Sweden, showing that speed was going to be tougher in México as Evans faced the dubious honour of sweeping the road clear for his rivals.
Not only did he handle this impeccably – sitting just 20 seconds shy of the lead in third place at the end of Friday – but he proved he has the ability of a champion-in-waiting too, even if he himself refuses to get drawn into this hype.
Hindered by a worse road position in his battle with Tänak, compounded when Neuville (maybe tactically) dropped between the pair on the road for Saturday’s second stage, Evans accepted he wasn’t going to challenge the Hyundai and instead focused on banking the 12 championship points that come with fourth place.
Worryingly for the competition, there’s definitely more to come from the Evans-Toyota alliance and he’ll be in a strong position to win next time out, no longer shackled with running first on the road.
Tänak needs to cut out the errors but remains incredibly quick
It’s fair to say Ott Tänak has had a mixed start to life as a Hyundai driver, crashing spectacularly in Monte Carlo before taking a gutsy second place in Sweden, still not quite 100% fit after his accident.
México was touted as his rally to lose by many. Starting sixth on the road and with a new aero package bolted onto the Hyundai that had been tested on the regional Rallye Serras de Fafe two weeks prior, he was a hot favourite for success.
It was all going according to the script after SS3 as Tänak blitzed next-best Ogier by 10.3 seconds to move into the rally lead. But his hard work was immediately undone as he slid wide and clipped a bank on SS4, damaging the rear-right suspension of his Hyundai.
The fact he managed to go second fastest in the next stage with a temporary fix in place was nothing short of sublime, but he had already shipped 45.9s to Ogier and that was always going to be hard to recover.
Tänak did his best, charging back from eighth place to second at the end of the rally, but it was clear Adamo was more worried about the mistake happening in the first place than his driver managing to rescue a bad situation for himself and the team.
And this should concern Tänak too. His speed and pace is beyond question even in a new car, but he must avoid these slips if he is to successfully defend his WRC crown. He knows that better than most with a sluggish start to 2018 ultimately costing him that year’s title…
Suninen shows his class at a much-needed time
Teemu Suninen’s drive to third place in México was tremendous, trying and timely all in equal measure.
Tremendous because he fought valiantly to try and hold off Tänak who was on a charged recovery mission after his earlier mistake. Trying because he had to battle through the final few stages with only three brakes and timely because there were plenty in the service park that were beginning to question his ability.
Sure, the Finn benefited from a lower start position on Friday but he still made the most of that privilege to keep with Ogier on Friday. And with the added pressure to finish after Esapekka Lappi’s Ford Fiesta WRC was destroyed by a fire, Suninen carried the weight of the M-Sport team on his shoulders and duly delivered.
Suninen has a track record of performing well on rougher, high temperature rallies and this was another one to add to his podium collection. Now he just needs to do it on a more consistent basis.
Neuville is looking more relaxed than ever
It wouldn’t have been unreasonable for Thierry Neuville to be seething in Mexico. Occupying third place as Friday wound to a close, he was finely poised for an attack at Ogier’s lead once running in a better road position on Saturday.
But he was denied this chance as his i20 Coupe WRC gave up on him on Las Minas 2 – the final gravel stage of Friday. Proving what might have been, Neuville pumped in eight fastest stage times across the weekend – more than anyone else – which was mightily impressive given he had no real reason to push on Saturday.
It all highlights a new and improved attitude from Neuville this season. His assured drive to win in Monte Carlo was the first sign that the 2020 version of Neuville is not be messed with and Rally México was yet further evidence of it.
Clinching more stage wins than team-mate Tänak was a real statement of intent given Tänak had a clear target to aim for and Neuville didn’t. And the composure Neuville showed in accepting his troubles was exemplary. Through no fault of his own he now finds himself 20 points adrift of the championship lead when he headed to México sharing the top spot with Elfyn Evans.
It would be easy for Neuville, a man who has finished second in the WRC standings five times in his career, to be deflated by an untimely blow like this. But instead he looked to the bigger picture: a better start position on the next rally and speed that is clear for everyone to see.
Neuville has never been one to lack confidence in his own ability, so with his self-belief ramped up another notch this season, his rivals ought to be wary.