From the alpine and wintry conditions of Monte Carlo and Sweden, the World Rally Championship quite literally turned up the heat for the third stop on the 2023 global tour: Rally México.
Touching down on Méxican soil for the first time in three years was an important milestone, and there was plenty to draw from the contest.
Here’s what we learned from Rally México 2023:
Ogier’s the ultimate rally mastermind
As a true pedant, I’m debating whether this is really something we learned from Rally México given we’ve plenty of evidence of this.
But it cannot be understated just how clever Sébastien Ogier is behind the wheel of a rally car. There is no other driver in the world that can control a rally like he can.
While we are all getting excited by Esapekka Lappi’s strong turn of speed on Friday that pushed Ogier into the background when everyone expected Ogier to be at the fore, Ogier was just doing his thing.
Biding his time. Calculating the risks. Planning his attack.
We don’t know how Saturday would have played out had Lappi not crashed out on the opening stage of the morning. But the local bookmakers wouldn’t have given you a good deal on an Ogier win.
Ogier just knows how to win. And he knows how to destroy his opposition, like for instance on the second pass of El Mosquito when he did everyone by 8.1s.
The rest must be so thankful that Ogier isn’t a full-time WRC player anymore. Because if he was, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t be capable of adding another world championship trophy to the cabinet – particularly given he leads the standings having only done two thirds of the events!
Lappi’s looking promising at Hyundai
I feel like I said it umpteen times before and during Rally México, but Esapekka Lappi’s results on the two opening rounds (eighth and seventh) belied his true potential in an i20.
Last weekend hammered that point home. For Lappi to be leading, in as equal conditions as it’s possible to get, against eight-time champion and then six-time México winner Ogier was deeply impressive.
He looked quite comfortable doing it, too.
Unfortunately it didn’t last. Lappi got caught out and paid a hefty price for the mistake in a scary accident on Saturday morning that ultimately ruled him out for the entire weekend.
Plainly, that’s not good. But Lappi should be looking at the positives not the negatives after México as Friday was as accomplished a leg performance as we’ve ever seen from him.
As he said himself, it was one of the best days of his career.
Tänak and M-Sport are back down to earth
Nobody expected Ott Tänak and M-Sport Ford to win quite as early as they did, but five weeks on from that dream in Sweden, reality bit back a touch in Mexico.
In fairness, all parties were aware that opening the road on Friday was going to be a struggle – if there were any hopes of back-to-back victories, they were certainly kept very quiet!
But the event couldn’t really have gone much worse with turbo problems costing Tänak 12 and a half minutes across the first loop alone. Rally completely over. But perhaps more worryingly, Tänak didn’t seem particularly in love with his Puma Rally1 even when it was working.
That’s not news. We know Tänak is chasing essentially an overhaul of the Ford’s dynamics so that it can give him the feeling he craves.
But from the joys of leading the championship for the first time since he became world champion, Tänak finds himself chasing once again. And that only ramps up the pressure upon M-Sport to work to give Tänak the feeling he needs.
Hybrids weren’t a talking point
Given it was the first time they’d be used as high altitude, and hybrid failures had become a sub-topic in both Monte and Sweden, hybrid was a real talking point in the lead up to Rally México.
But nobody’s talking about it afterwards.
That’s because, despite the fears of the units struggling cooling-wise, there were no failures to speak of.
The only time there were problems were after a big compression on SS4 that was suspected to have been created by spectators after the pre-event recce.
(Lack of) México experience tells
There were just two Rally1 drivers on the Rally México entry list that had no experience of the events, and both them had slightly messy weekends.
Takamoto Katsuta made the bigger error – misjudging his braking in a fast sequence which led to his Toyota falling off the road and rolling into a ditch. Not the way he had planned to spend his 30th birthday.
Pierre-Louis Loubet had a similarly tough time; retiring twice from the event. The first instance looked to be quite unlucky but the second was his own driving mistake – missing his braking point and striking a rock which put him out for a second time.
Then there was that off-road moment on the first stage of Sunday and a puncture on the second!
México wasn’t a weekend either Katsuta or Loubet will be planning to add to their showreel, but what it really proved was how tricky a rally like México is to master. There are other hot, gravel rallies on the calendar but none with the added challenge of the power-sapping altitude.
It’s a rally you need to have experience on to succeed – as proved by the record-breaking winner at the front of the field.
Greensmith’s a real WRC2 contender
If there were any doubts – either inside or outside his camp – over Gus Greensmith’s move into WRC2 this year, they’ve completely vanished now.
Greensmith looked utterly in control last weekend as he powered to his first WRC2 win since Rally Turkey 2019 on his first WRC rally in a car without a blue oval on the hood.
And he did so without a fuss. He just quietly went about his business and did precisely what he needed to do to win. Against old Rally1 rivals Oliver Solberg and Adrien Fourmaux, that was an important statement to make.
And given Greensmith is set for bucket loads of seat time this season with entries into all the WRC rounds (except potentially Japan), a two-day test before each event and some development work with Škoda on the side, Greensmith looks to have everything he needs for a big 2023.
2023 title fight is as competitive as we’d hoped
After three rounds last season, we all knew where it was going. Kalle Rovanperä had been so imperious, and his lead was so big, that already it was becoming a question of when and not if the Toyota driver would become world champion.
This year? It’s anybody’s guess. And that’s just how we’d dared hope it would be.
The fact Ogier leads the way is a touch embarrassing for his full-time rivals, but they are hamstrung with opening the road.
Ott Tänak had that dream result in Sweden but came back down to earth in Mexico, while the reigning champion has only managed one podium (second in Monte Carlo) in the first three rallies.
Elfyn Evans proved he is very much a contender too by repelling Thierry Neuville’s advances throughout the weekend before second was snatched from his clutches on the final stage.
Heading into Croatia, just nine points split the title-contending quartet. It’s too close to call, and it looks set to be that way all season long.