Walking high into hills above León, there was a moment of doubt at leaving the comfort of our all-American hire car.
GM’s Tahoe, for those not reading this to the left of the Atlantic, is just ginormous. It’s as big as a house and comfortable as an old pair of sneakers that you just can’t bring yourself to throw away.
And right now, Colin Clark and I are outside of that Tahoe comfort zone. Metaphorically and physically. We’re on a voyage, hunting the best possible position for a long shot which will show the magic of Mexican rallying.
We’re high enough in the hills for your ears to pop and pop again. We’re far enough from everywhere for cell phone coverage to be laughed at in a way that suggests the whole concept of a telephone being mobile is simply mad.
Trust me, these places still exist. Colin and I know, because we found one last week. Another one.
The concern comes from the two gents walking towards us. They’re both carrying machetes.
It feels like we’d be more local if we came from the moon.
As we approach, they break into smiles. Both wear big, wide cowboy hats faded and frayed by day after day of relentless sunshine. Their faces are weathered, but the brown eyes that shine out are nothing but warm.
Sensing my alarm when the older of the two waves his two-foot long ‘knife’ as a way of saying hello, he starts laughing.
He points to a field with half-cut crops and makes a hacking motion. Everything makes sense; he’s been working the land and now it’s home time.
We converse in a vague fashion, confirming the rally is coming tomorrow and that it is, indeed, hot. Having fussed over a fine collection of donkeys, Clark catches a whiff of cinnamon-sweet coffee brewing. In the blink of an eye, we’re offered a cup.
Sadly, we don’t have time.
We have a road to find. We bid farewell with a strong, solid handshake.
You get the feeling the word ‘corona’ still has just the one meaning when you’re this far out of town and this high in the hills.
It was a fantastic moment.
“It’s moments like that that put the ‘world’ into the World Rally Championship,” said Clark, still looking like a man miffed he’d missed out on a cup of coffee.
It’s moments like that that put México in the World Rally Championship.
It’s the color, the otherworldliness, these further-flung events bring. It’s Africa, it’s Argentina and, if you dive far enough inland, it’s Australia.
You don’t get those moments in Europe. You just don’t.
Map out this year’s WRC and you’ll see a significant imbalance. There’s nothing over there on the left. For the second year in succession, the Americas remain untouched by the finest championship in the world. That disparity must be sorted for next season. And it will be.
The good folk of WRC Promoter are painfully aware of a sizeable slice of planet earth not being served by them.
The reasons for an American no-show this season are perfectly understandable. When the 2022 calendar was being closed last fall, COVID-19 was still very much hitting travel as the world reacted to the variant spikes and spooky numbers.
One promoter insider told me: “We want to go to México. But the March date is too risky right now. What do we do if the boat with all the long haul kit on docks into México in late February only to be told borders are closed and we can’t go?”
At the time of that conversation, that was still very much happening. Less so now.
Nobody blames WRC Promoter, it took strategic decisions to safeguard a championship and a calendar which had spent two years at the mercy of the pandemic.
Two years ago, Europe fled León as borders closed and the world started to shut down. Rally México was cut short by a day as the service park was packed down and shipped out in record time.
What happened the day after the last truck left the Poliforum service park in León two years ago? Work began on flattening the place in preparation for an all-new rally campus.
The city planners had always earmarked some of the more tired-looking buildings to the side of the León football stadium for a bit of a revamp. But their plans involved a lot more trees with a much more park-like look. Had those plans come to fruition, the WRC’s future in León would have been complicated to say the least.
There’s no way the teams could fit their kit around more foliage. Rally manager Gilles Spitalier told them as much.
The result? León made a new plan. The city and state government worked hand-in-hand with Spitalier to deliver what was needed for the rally. The whole area was given a WRC-friendly makeover. The same event that brought the first ever fully indoor service park in 2004 has stepped up to the plate once more and delivered the gold standard for a service park infrastructure.
Eighteen years ago, Malcolm Wilson described Rally México as the blueprint for future rallies. Last weekend, his sonMatthew Wilson stepped out of his fourth-placed Ford Fiesta Rally2 and uttered the same words.
Every team will have their own two-storey service park pavilion building, complete with the potential to design their own mezzanine level, dividing space into offices, hospitality lounges or engineering areas – heck, a fitted kitchen’s available if they so desire.
It’s not often a game-changer comes along, but in terms of service park infrastructure, that’s what León has delivered.
Now, I’m not saying a rallying equivalent of the perfect paddock is what every event needs. Far from it. Personally, I’d advocate most events spending less time in the service park and more time out on the road. But that’s not México.
Rally México is blessed by the fact that some of the world’s best and most challenging stages fall within half an hour or so of the downtown service park.
And those stages, in the last 18 years, have delivered some of the most astonishing storylines in the history of the series. Show me a Ford Fiesta RS WRC at the bottom of a lake being raised, drained and driven the next day and I’ll raise you a Northern Irishman driving a Citroën around a car park before crossing the finish line to win the rally.
Both happened, if you stood at the top of a big hill, within sight of the service park. That location side of things is a strength Spitalier and rally director Patrick Suberville have always played to. Every round of the world championship is unique and comes with its own set of strengths and weaknesses.
It’s increasingly difficult to spy any weaknesses in what the state of Guanajuato has on offer.
You’d have noticed the odd reminder of ‘partner promoted content’ in our coverage of Rally of Nations Guanajuato last week. Yes, we worked with Spitalier and Suberville to give their event and their hopes of a WRC return a shove. That deal ended on Sunday night.
This is an independent comment piece reflecting what I found last week. With that ceremonial start, those roads and now, that fanbase, México would have made a compelling case for itself.
But being there, seeing the new service park and listening to the ambitions of the officials in both León city and Guanajuato state-level government, took that case to a whole new level.
And yes, the fanbase thing is bang on.
Talk to people like Raúl Almeida. In his mid-20s, Raúl’s from Silao, a city that sits right in the heart of the Rally México footprint.
He’s grown up with his nation’s round of the World Rally Championship.
“It hurts for WRC not to be here,” he told DirtFish. “Every year, we wait for the WRC. Every year.”
And there are no shortage of Raúls about the place now. Last week they came out in their thousands for what they’re hoping was the foundations of a new dawn for Rally México being laid.
From where I was standing, those foundations are as firmly planted as they are hard to ignore.