We all knew it was going to happen sooner or later, but even so…I don’t think anyone saw that one coming, did they? Whichever way you look at it, success in motorsport – particularly at an international level like this – is something that normally takes time to achieve, and, while it’s natural to try and aim for the best possible outcome in any case, it often pays to be a little more realistic and not try to run before you can walk in terms of getting results. I mean, it says a lot about just what a statement it was when even the team themselves – who probably have the highest expectations than anyone – were saying even before a wheel had been turned that their target of outright victories was still a way away from being fulfilled and not to expect too much, too soon, and, while I’m sure they’ll take it however it comes, I highly doubt even they thought this would happen so soon. The new boys have already well and truly made their mark on the 2017 FIA World Rally Championship season…and it’s all starting to warm up nicely.
Having spent nearly two decades away from the championship, it was hardly surprising that Toyota’s return to the stages as a fully fledged works team was so keenly anticipated, and, with such a long period of time for testing and development of the new Yaris, it’s also been nothing of a shock that the team – led by former four-time world drivers’ champion Tommi Makinen – have been right on the pace from the get-go in what looks, based on the early exchanges, as though it could be one of the most competitive title battles the championship has seen for many years. However, it didn’t exactly start out that way, with the reigning four-time world championship winning pairing of Frenchman Sebastien Ogier and co-driver Julien Ingrassia kick-starting their campaign for a fifth successive drivers’ crown in perfect fashion by taking a comfortable victory on the legendary mountains of Monte Carlo, marking the successful start of a new partnership with Ford and the M-Sport operation in the process after the shock withdrawal of the all-conquering factory Volkswagen Motorsport team at the end of 2016.
However, the story of the opening round of not just the season, but a new era for the sport, was arguably the performance of another of VW’s refugees as flying Finn Jari-Matti Latvala kept out of trouble to net a superb second on debut in the Yaris, and, amazingly, it got even better for the fledgling Toyota team – led by former four-time world drivers’ champion Tommi Makinen – last time out as the cars hit the snow-covered forests of Sweden…and there was an eerie sense of deja vu as to how it played out. For most of the event, Belgian ace Thierry Neuville was in a class of his own as he opened up a big advantage in his brand-new Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC, but, having done all the hard work, it all came undone for the leader on the final super-special stage of Saturday’s action when contact with a bank broke his steering and forced him out of contention, leaving Latvala to pick up the pieces – albeit after holding off a late attack from the menacing Fiestas of Ogier and rapid Estonian Ott Tanak – on his way to a stunning first win for Toyota since Frenchman Didier Auriol took victory in China back in 1999.
In terms of the early championship standings, the Finn’s victory in Sweden also catapulted him to the head of the drivers’ championship by just four points ahead of former stable-mate Ogier, with Tanak a further 11 points adrift in third despite picking up a pair of podium finishes of his own on the opening two events. Behind the leading trio, ever-consistent Spaniard Dani Sordo secured yet another solid haul of points to lead a stuttering early charge from Hyundai in fourth ahead of youngster Craig Breen in fifth – the Irishman impressing as the best of the Citroen drivers on the French marque’s full-time return to the stages after a year’s absence – with Welshman Elfyn Evans in his DMACK-sponsored, M-Sport run Ford Fiesta in sixth. Of the other pre-season title favourites, Neuville was forced to make do with just a handful of Power Stage bonus points despite his phenomenal early pace, while Irishman Kris Meeke’s nightmare start to the year in the second of the Citroens continued when he crashed out of what seemed a reasonably safe fifth place midway through Saturday.
After the ice and snow in Scandinavia, the third round of the season saw the championship head off across the Atlantic for its annual visit to Central America, with the brutal harshness, heat and humidity of Mexico providing the first real chance of the year to see the new-spec 2017 machinery on the ragged edge on a true gravel event. Having been based around the city of Leon – around 380km (220 miles) north-west of the capital, Mexico City – since it arrived on the calendar back in 2004, the rally has developed a reputation as a real car-breaker, with the high altitude (some stages being more than 2700ft above sea level) and the hot temperatures putting particular strain on engines and transmissions, and, while the road surface isn’t as rough as some on other events, exposed ruts on the second pass have the potential to catch out the unwary.
In terms of the route itself, many of the 19 stages – which total a combined distance of just over 370 competitive kilometres – have remained relatively unchanged in comparison to 12 months ago, although the decision by event organisers to scrap the mammoth 80km test of Guanajuato (the longest permitted distance for a single stage under current WRC regulations) denies the drivers a chance to tackle arguably the most arduous challenge of all this time around, but there’s still plenty of iconic tests for the crews to get their teeth into, with the two passes through the 54km monster of El Chocolate – which, despite the name, is far from sweet for the drivers and teams – taking pride of place on the opening day’s action on Friday. Saturday’s itinerary takes in one of the few new stages for 2017 in the form of Lajas de Oro, which measures in at more than 38km, alongside the similarly sizeable 27km test of Media Luna, while the final day on Sunday is a comparative sprint, with just two stages to negotiate in the form of the near-33km La Calera before the rally-ending Power Stage – which measures in at around 22km – of Derramadero.
When the championship arrived here 12 months ago, the battle for supremacy – as so many events were over the course of 2016 – quickly boiled down to a straight shoot-out between the two dominant VW drivers, where, although it was Ogier that took the early lead, a sensational time from Latvala on the first pass through El Chocolate saw the Finn assume control and surge into a lead he was never to lose, eventually cruising to victory by more than a minute to get his championship challenge started after failing to score in either of the opening two rounds. Despite losing his 100% win record at the third time of asking, reigning champion Ogier still managed to extend his points lead after the early retirement of the third Polo R of Andreas Mikkelsen (who, remember, remains without a full-time seat at the top level) by taking second, with Norwegian Mads Ostberg inheriting the final spot on the podium in his M-Sport Ford Fiesta after a post-event penalty for third-placed Sordo.
So, with all that in mind, would Latvala be able to consolidate his position as the man to catch and continue Toyota’s phenomenal early season form on their return to the stages, or could reigning champion Ogier respond to the increasing threat of his former stable-mate to put M-Sport back on the top step of the rostrum? After failing to get anything out of his superb early performances on the opening two events, could Neuville make it third time lucky for Hyundai and put himself back in the mix for the top honours, or would somebody else emerge to throw their name into the ring and continue the unpredictable nature of the season so far? Well, it’s about time to find out – this is the story of the third event of the 2017 FIA World Rally Championship, the 2017 Rally Mexico…
DAYS 1 AND 2 (SS1-SS8):
The event began in spectacular fashion on Thursday evening with a pair of short sprints around the newly-constructed super-special stage in the famous Zocano Square in the centre of Mexico City, and, with the cars set up for the gravel stages to follow rather than the damp tarmac after a sudden downpour, there was immediately a surprise in store as Finland’s Juho Hanninen – who had failed to finish either of the first two rallies on his return to the sport’s top level – grabbed the early advantage in the second of the Toyotas by 1.6s, with Tanak’s Ford and the Citroen of Meeke posting the exact same time to lie joint-second overnight ahead of the two leading Hyundais of Neuville and stable-mate Hayden Paddon. Despite posting the fastest time on the second run, an error from Ogier on the first pass saw the Frenchman have to make do with sixth in his Fiesta, while championship leader Latvala made a cautious start to end the opening stage in eighth behind Sordo’s Hyundai.
However, the innovation of taking the championship up to the capital then backfired somewhat, as a road accident delayed the cars’ return to service enough to force the cancellation of the two morning stages on Friday, including the first run through El Chocolate. Once the cars eventually got going in anger, though, it wasn’t long before the rough roads started to cause problems, with Latvala struggling with a lack of brakes on his Yaris while others reported problems with overheating engines, but there were no such worries for Meeke as the Northern Irishman – capitalising on a more favourable road position – powered through to take the stage win for Citroen on SS4 (the second run through El Chocolate) to take over at the head of the field on his way to establishing a lead of more than 20 seconds ahead of Ogier by the end of the day. Behind, however, it wasn’t such good news for Hyundai as both Paddon and Sordo – the latter having worked his way up into a fine third by the end of SS6 – encountered similar engine problems on consecutive stages to drop back down the order, allowing stable-mate Neuville to move into a provisional podium position in third, albeit nearly a minute adrift of the lead.
Behind the leading trio, Hanninen managed to maintain his early pace and stay out of trouble to sit an encouraging fourth overnight, with Tanak breathing down the Toyota man’s neck in fifth – the margin between the pair a mere 5.6s – ahead of young Frenchman Stephane Lefebvre, who also managed to get the better of the ailing Paddon on his second appearance of 2017 in the second of the new Citroen C3s to end the day inside the top six. It wasn’t quite such a good day, though, for the championship leader, as Latvala continued to suffer with engine gremlins on his Toyota and was forced to settle for a disappointing eighth, some 2 and a half minutes off the pace, while there was a good battle between the leading contenders in the WRC2 support category as they capitalised on some of the top-flight runners hitting trouble to move into the overall points paying positions, with just over 25s separating class-leading Swede Pontus Tidemand in his Skoda Fabia R5 in ninth from the M-Sport Ford Fiesta R5 of Frenchman Eric Camilli in tenth.
Jari-Matti Latvala (FIN) – #10 Toyota Yaris WRC
LEADERBOARD AFTER DAY 2:
1. Meeke (Citroen)
2. Ogier (Ford) +20.9s
3. Neuville (Hyundai) +56.7s
4. Hanninen (Toyota) +1:27.3s
5. Tanak (Ford) +1:32.9s
6. Lefebvre (Citroen) +1:52.8s
7. Paddon (Hyundai) +2:02.1s
8. Latvala (Toyota) +2:30.8s
9. Tidemand (Skoda – 1st in WRC2) +3:34.3s
10. Camilli (Ford – 2nd in WRC2) +3:59.7s
DAYS 3 AND 4 (SS10-SS19):
With conditions noticeably cooler than they had been on the opening day, the new-spec cars were given their first real chance to fly on the longest leg of the rally on Saturday, with Sordo – who had dropped right out of contention after receiving a massive 10 minute time penalty for interrupting the running order of the super-special after his engine problems – fastest out of the blocks with an electrifying time on the first pass through Media Luna (SS9) before backing it up with another on SS10 to further underline the pace of his i20, while the battle at the front continued to remain evenly poised, with world champion Ogier marginally quicker than overnight leader Meeke on the opening stage of the day before the Northern Irishman hit back on the next to extend his advantage a little further still. Further back, though, it was proving a difficult day for his Citroen team-mate, as, having already conceded sixth place to Paddon’s Hyundai, Lefebvre then slid off the road midway through SS10 to drop out of the points altogether, while Italian privateer Lorenzo Bertelli – making his first apperance of 2017 in his privately-run Fiesta – also rolled out of contention on the same stage.
After seeing nearest rival Neuville take a joint stage win with the rally leader on the first run through the famous El Brinco test, Ogier then responded on the first stage of the afternoon to take a little more time out of Meeke’s lead, but the reigning world champion then threw away all his hard work with an uncharacteristic spin in SS13, allowing the Citroen man to capitalise and take yet another fastest time to almost double his lead to nearly 40 seconds. Having enjoyed a relatively quiet event, Tanak – returning to the scene of his frightening accident 12 months ago, when contact with a bank sent the Estonian’s car plunging into a roadside lake, forcing driver and then-co-driver Raigo Molder to swim to safety – then got in on the act with his first fastest time of the weekend on SS14, but, despite notching up another stage win on the final test of the day, Ogier seemed to be fighting a losing battle in the leading M-Sport Fiesta as Meeke managed to stabilise his lead at around half a minute heading into the final day, with Neuville a similar distance further back in third.
The final day’s action saw rain begin to fall ahead of the penultimate stage of the event, with Latvala one of the first to be caught out by the conditions as he slid off the road on the La Calera test as he sought to hang on to sixth ahead of team-mate Hanninen – the margin between the pair overnight just 0.3s – while, back at the front, Meeke looked as though he had everything under control as another stage win on SS18, extending his advantage over Ogier by another 6.3s, took him to the brink of victory…but no one could have foreseen what was to come next. Having almost made it to the end of the rally-ending Power Stage, the Northern Irishman flew off the road and into one of the spectators’ car parks, but, despite losing precious seconds as he picked his way through the cars, he still had enough time in hand to make it back onto the stage and cover the final few hundred metres to secure a dramatic fourth WRC victory by a mere 13.8s ahead of nearest rival Ogier, with Neuville completing the podium in third and taking the maximum five points for the fastest time on the Power Stage to get his championship challenge up and running.
Behind the top three, Tanak produced another solid drive to net more useful points for M-Sport and Ford with fourth – albeit more than a minute adrift of the rostrum – ahead of the recovering Paddon in fifth, while, after a difficult start to the weekend, and despite his mistake on the opening stage of the day, Latvala held on to win the Toyota inter-team battle for sixth by more than 25s ahead of team-mate Hanninen, although the veteran Finn still stayed out of trouble to secure his first points of the season in seventh. Further back, Sordo – who had had his earlier penalty rescinded on appeal to put him back inside the top 10 – managed to take something from an up-and-down weekend with eighth ahead of the anonymous Evans in ninth (the Welshman having been forced to play catch-up from the outset after a pre-event penalty for an engine change after shakedown), while Tidemand emerged as victor in the WRC2 class to take the final overall point in tenth having held off the challenge of Camilli, with the final margin a comfortable 42.7s in favour of the young Swede.
Power Stage – Top 5:
1. Neuville (Hyundai) 12:13.9s
2. Ogier (Ford) +0.3s
3. Latvala (Toyota) +3.8s
4. Tanak (Ford) +8.0s
5. Sordo (Hyundai) +9.8s
Kris Meeke (GBR) – #7 Citroen C3 WRC
1. Meeke (Citroen)
2. Ogier (Ford) +13.8s
3. Neuville (Hyundai) +59.7s
4. Tanak (Ford) +2:18.3s
5. Paddon (Hyundai) +3:32.9s
6. Latvala (Toyota) +4:40.3s
7. Hanninen (Toyota) +5:06.2s
8. Sordo (Hyundai) +5:22.7s
9. Evans (Ford) +8:41.8s
10. Tidemand (Skoda – 1st in WRC2) +10:51.9s
WRC2 – TOP 4:
1.  Pontus Tidemand (Skoda)
2.  Eric Camilli (Ford) +42.7s
3.  Benito Guerra (Skoda) +7:46.1s
4.  Pedro Heller (Skoda) +1:01:17.1s
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Ogier (Ford) – 66pts (18+4 PS)
2. Latvala (Toyota) – 58pts (8+2 PS)
3. Tanak (Ford) – 48pts (12+3 PS)
4. Sordo (Hyundai) – 30pts (4+1 PS)
5. Neuville (Hyundai) – 28pts (15+5 PS)
6. Meeke (Citroen) – 27pts (25)
7. Breen (Citroen) – 20pts (-)
8. Evans (Ford) – 20pts (2)
9. Paddon (Hyundai) – 17pts (10)
10. Lefebvre (Citroen) – 10pts (0)
Manufacturers – Top 4:
1. M-Sport World Rally Team – 103pts
2. Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT – 67pts
3. Hyundai Motorsport – 65pts
4. Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT – 55pts