By David C. Schilke
For the first time the new generation World Rally Championship cars tackled gravel stages in the 2011 running of Rally Mexico. After Ford's Fiesta reigned supreme in the snow there was much debate on how strong the Citroen DS3 would perform on gravel, the surface of choice for the majority of events this season. With Mikko Hirvonen first out and first to sweep the roads the path was cleared for Citroen's Sebastiens to jump into a commanding lead after ten stages.
In these conditions, the fact that I've been quicker than Petter and Seb all day makes me very happy.
At the front and 2.3 seconds clear of his teammate, Sebastien Ogier had no problems in competition and went on to take five stage wins. The Citroen driver did make a mistake during the midday service but chances are unlikely the Frenchman will face a penalty. For now Ogier is the top ace, but the table will turn on him tomorrow as today's lead means he'll be first on virgin roads tomorrow.
"My strategy was simple. I had to push as hard as possible today," said Ogier. "Our fourth position on the road wasn't too bad but not ideal in that the other DS3 WRCs started just behind me. In these conditions, the fact that I've been quicker than Petter and Seb all day makes me very happy. It'll be a lot more difficult tomorrow as I have to open the road. I'm not in the best position to win the rally, but I don't have any other choice. I'm going to continue pushing as hard as I can."
For most of the day Sebastien Loeb has been right behind his younger teammate. While unable to match the pace set by Ogier the gap is small and Loeb walked away with four stage wins. Citroen has so far dominated the first leg of the rally, with Thursday's Super Special going to privateer Petter Solberg. For leg two Loeb will have a better starting position and will surely do all he can to chase down Ogier.
"I couldn't really have hoped for much better on the first day," smiled Loeb. "My aim was not to be in the lead this evening. The situation soon became pretty clear where our rivals were concerned, and the rally quickly turned into a scrap with Sebastien. I think we were both going flat out and the next round looks interesting. We'll have to see how much sweeping influences things. With the new cars and the Michelin tyres I have the impression that the gaps are smaller than in the past. I can't wait for tomorrow !"
Even while sliding in the front of the parade Hirvonen was able to close the day third overall, but the Finn find himself well over a minute behind his rivals. The Ford Fiesta caused him no problems and just his road position caused such a dramatic gap to the leaders. Hirvonen will have an easier time tomorrow, but will have his work cut out for him if the Citroen drivers keep their pace leading on the road.
Almost two minutes from Hirvonen, teammate Jari-Matti Latvala hasn't had the best start in Mexico. A puncture on stage 4 dropped him back to tenth overall and the Finn had to fight his way back into the top five. His starting position tomorrow will make him a contender for stage wins but it will take a mistake from the top three for Latvala to podium now.
Solberg might have been in the podium fight as well had it not been for electrical problems on his Citroen DS3 WRC that set him to 13th overall at the end of leg 1. After winning the opening stage he wasn't able to match the factory Citroens but sat third before the gremlin set in on the car. Once the repairs were made his pace was back up to Ogier and Loeb, but the time lost effectively takes him out of any real running. Maximum points will be Solberg's goal for the rest of the event.
"This was not the way we planned for this rally, explained Solberg, "And I'm so disappointed. Up until then the car was working perfectly and everything was exactly as we planned. Now we have to aim for points in the Championship, and also use the rest of the rally to get to know the car even better."
That leaves the door open for new names to hit the top ten, Evgeny Novikov makes his return to the WRC after running with the Citroen Junior team in 2009. The Russian is currently sixth, one spot from his best result in Italy. Now in a Ford Novikov is a mere ten second away from the factory ride of Latvala.
Henning Solberg sits seventh close to the battle for fifth, while Dennis Kuipers and Nasser Al-Attiyah are in a fight over seventh. Ott Tanak and Martin Prokop round out the top ten. American Ken Block is 17th after one day of action after suffering a mechanical problem to his Ford.