David Schilke, WRC correspondent
The first leg of Rally Mexico concluded with two super special stages late into the evening. Now two very happy Citroen drivers will get much needed sleep, content they are in a commanding lead of the rally. As the only North American event on the World Rally Championship calendar, the rally is centered around León, a city smack dab in the middle of Mexico. For nine years the WRC teams have faced the challenge of this dry, dusty test which is well above sea level. At 2737 meters above sea level cars make less power, and each small mistake can lead to a greater loss of time.
In these nine years Sebastien Loeb has taken the last five wins, and looks to make it an even half dozen in 2012. Only two obstacles stand the way of this goal: 250 kilometers of desert still awaiting the field and one new teammate, Mikko Hirvonen, who used to be a former rival from the Ford camp next door. After the first day the Finn is a mere 11.2 seconds behind Loeb. Yet it looks the battle for the lead will be left to these Citroen drivers, as their nearest threat, the Ford of Mads ØStberg, is a full minute behind.
Under normal circumstances, I don’t think we can be caught, but there are over 250 kilometres of timed stages still to go!
“Mikko seems to be getting to grips with the DS3 WRC and I really had to go at full pelt to build up a small lead,” admitted Loeb. “Overall, it was a very good day, as the two Citroëns hold a clear lead over the rest of the field. Under normal circumstances, I don’t think we can be caught, but there are over 250 kilometres of timed stages still to go!”
It was a difficult day for the Ford World Rally team. Petter Solberg won yesterday’s qualifying and street stages but tumbled down the order on Friday’s opening test with a bad puncture. Soon teammate Jari-Matti Latvala bumped Hirvonen to put the Ford team back on top, but a rock on stage five took any chance of Latvala leading into the night. The Finnish driver suffered suspension failure and spent the rest of his day winning stages just to claw back into fourth place. Latvala has 16 second to make on ØStberg for third place, with little chance of improving if both Citroen aces stay out of trouble.
“It happened about 12km into the stage at a sixth gear, blind left curve over a crest,” explained Latvala. “In my pace notes I had a rock marked on the inside so I couldn’t cut. I saw another rock next to it that wasn’t there during the recce, and because I was in sixth gear there was no chance to avoid it. I tried to steer the car wider, but it was slippery off line so I had to turn in and hit the rock.”
Solberg sits just behind Latvala in fifth, his aim will be to chase down his teammate and leapfrog onto the podium with two days of action to go, “Perhaps I pushed a little too much this morning, but sometimes once you make a mistake you try to recover the time lost and then make more errors. My aim is to get onto the podium and although we probably need those ahead to make a mistake to achieve that, I will continue to attack and see if we can put pressure on them.”
Ott Tänak is right behind Solberg in sixth and Evgeny Novikov sits further back seventh, both drivers represent M-Sport, a privateer team that has shown great strength this year. Chris Atkinson rounds out the top eight and won his first super special after making his return to the sport since 2009. The former Subaru driver is now in a Ford with Ken Block as his teammate. Block closed the day in 15th, after breaking a driveshaft and slowing down to allow Atkinson to pass. Little did Block know at the time that Atkinson was also delayed with problems of his own. Both drivers lost quite a bit of time and may have been fighting in the top five had their day gone better.
Dakar winner Nasser Al-Attiyah earned his first stage win in the WRC today on stage 11, the Citroen driver sits ninth overall. Armindo Araujo closes out the top ten, in his MINI Team Portugal entry. The works MINI effort has skipped this event, while the car undergoes improvements and homologation before the Rally de Portugal held later this month.