The Zócalo, the main square in Mexico City, was the ground-breaking venue for the spectator stage that kicked off Rally Mexico 2017. Also, shortly before the action got underway on Thursday night, the famous plaza was turned white by a hail storm that beat down on the capital.
The theory behind the spectator stage was a good one: with an urban population of about 25 million people, this was going to take rallying to the people in a way that had never been seen before. For the most part it worked, although some understandably questioned the wisdom of an 800km round trip just for the sake of driving 3km in a square.
Not just any old square though: one of the largest city centre squares in the world, where James Bond picked a fight with a man in a helicopter during the jaw-dropping opening sequence of Spectre. The winner of the stage was Toyota’s Juho Hänninen, although Mexico would go on to become an endurance test of a different type for him…
Those who argued against the day trip to Mexico City were provided with hefty ammunition when a road accident (which was nothing to do with the rally) blocked the motorway between the capital and rally HQ in León.
The result was that all the rally cars, which were being transported by truck, didn’t get to the service park until 10am on Friday: more or less the same time as they should have been heading off to start the first loop of stages.
This meant an unscheduled morning off for the drivers, with only the afternoon’s stages eventually run. While drivers love to complain, those running at the front of the field were secretly relieved: the cancellation of those stages undoubtedly reduced the time they would have lost sweeping the road clean for their pursuers.
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Hyundai hit another wall
Once the stages got underway, the action panned out as expected: those at the front of the field lost time through road-sweeping, while those who had an advantageous road position – such as Citroen’s Kris Meeke – made the most of it.
The driver of the day was undoubtedly M-Sport’s Sébastien Ogier, who despite running second on the road managed to hang on to the runner-up spot behind Meeke. That’s why he’s a four-time champion.
But there was something funny going on at Hyundai, which even gave rise to some good, old-fashioned conspiracy theories. Once again, the i20 WRC showed massive pace, but once again it came to grief with all three cars suffering from a mysterious misfire on Friday evening’s final super special stages in León. Had somebody disrupted their fuel supply? The stop-start progress certainly made it look that way from the outside, and the time lost was catastrophic.
The heat is on
Rally Mexico includes the highest route on the whole championship, peaking at 2,737m – higher than the most ski resorts. While the effect of the thin air on engine power is well-known, this year it particularly affected cooling and aerodynamics on the brand-new generation of World Rally Cars, which were also contesting their first-ever gravel event.
Check out the effect of altitude with this incredibly scientific test as we drive a bag of crisps up a mountain:
Speeds have increased this year, which requires more cooling, and the wafer-thin air simply wasn’t up to the job. As a result, the majority of the cars went into safe mode on some of the longer stages, limiting their power to that of a road car. Same goes for the aerodynamics: those big wings are largely useless if the air pushing down on them has all the density of a helium balloon.
Saturday’s cooler weather went a long way towards fixing the problem, but on Friday more or less everyone suffered. Elfyn Evans hit problems even before the start: he had to have his Ford’s engine changed after shakedown, which meant a five-minute penalty. “We’ve just got to make the best of it, but basically we’re doing the rally with both hands tied behind our backs,” he said.
Everyone in Mexico had rally fever – especially Juho Hänninen. And we’re not talking fever in a good way either. The Finn turned up at Rally Mexico sounding like Darth Vader and four days of being pounded around inside an intensely hot rally car failed to cure him. At one point, he even had to stop to be sick on a road section.
Under the circumstances, Hänninen’s first points score of the season wins him the hero of the rally prize hands down. He fought his experienced team-mate (and world championship leader after Sweden) Jari-Matti Latvala every inch of the way, going into the final day of the rally just 0.3 seconds behind him.
Meeke shall inherit the Earth
Kris Meeke said that he wasn’t pushing hard or taking any risks, and while we’ve heard that line before from several drivers, in Kris’s case it might actually have been true, as he completed most of the rally with two spare wheels, as opposed to the roulette option of just one.
Kris wasn’t the only one taking a softly-softly approach: many people thought that once Ogier had a decent road position on Saturday, the hammer would come down and Meeke would be history.
Not exactly. They set roughly equal times and Ogier insisted that he was playing the long game. Given that Ogier now leads the championship, it looks like he’s right.
But… there was a vicious twist. On the very final stage, just one kilometre from the finish, Meeke’s Citroen flew off the road and ended up in a car park. Somehow, he managed to find his way back through the parked cars and onto the stage, eventually winning by just 13 seconds.
“I’m a lucky, lucky boy,” he admitted afterwards. “I just got caught out by a bump after the jump. That’s certainly one way to finish a rally!”
Like we said: not pushing hard, not taking risks…