Martin claims Rally Mexico as others falter

Martin claims Rally Mexico as others falter

Markko Martin took the spoils in the 2004 Rally Mexico, as other front-runners fell by the wayside. By winning the first World Rally Championship event to be held in Mexico, Martin moved into a first-place tie with Sebastien Loeb in the 2004...

Markko Martin took the spoils in the 2004 Rally Mexico, as other front-runners fell by the wayside. By winning the first World Rally Championship event to be held in Mexico, Martin moved into a first-place tie with Sebastien Loeb in the 2004 point standings.

Markko Martin and Michael Park.
Photo by Ford Motor Company.
Martin won only one of the event's 15 special stages, claiming SS11 (Ibarrilla-Mesa 1) from Carlos Sainz by two-tenths of a second, but showed consistency and endurance to take the win. To finish first, one must first finish, after all.

"It's nothing to do with speed," Martin reflected on his victory. "It was more like work. We really worked, not paying much attention to what was going on around us, just doing our own thing. For a change, luck was on our side. It is the first time I have benefited from other people's bad luck."

Martin's Ford Focus teammate, Francois Duval, took second in the rally, 42.5 seconds behind. This was the young Belgian's best career finish in the WRC, beating out his third-place finish in the 2002 Turkey event.

Petter Solberg and Phil Mills.
Photo by Enrique Gijon.
The first day's victim was Petter Solberg, the defending WRC champion. Solberg's car failed to start on the uphill to the final time control of the opening day, and had to be pushed to the control point. The team was immediately hit with a 40-second penalty for being four minutes late, and was followed up with a further five minutes for outside assistance -- even if it had not been asked for -- getting to the time control.

"We were waiting to start the car to go into time control," said Solberg after the first day. "The car didn't start and, unfortunately, it was uphill there, it was difficult to push and, because of a stupid rule to not have a start battery any more in Parc Ferme, it's destroying a lot. First of all we pushed it to the yellow flag, and then afterwards I understand you're allowed to have help. But not so many people helped us, so we were standing for a while before anyone pushed us."

Solberg continued the rally, though, and drove like a man possessed, clocking fastest times in nine of the rally's 15 special stages -- and finishing in fourth place to claim five valuable championship points.

"We know where we could have been if it wasn't for that penalty, but that's just how it is sometimes," Solberg reflected. "I'm feeling very positive about the way the new car felt to drive. It's even better than I had expected, a real improvement, and I think the number of stage wins has proved how good it is."

Loeb, the points leader coming into the event, was the second of the contenders to falter. The Frenchman hit a rock on SS6, and by SS7, the Citroen Xsara's engine was leaking enough oil that Loeb had to abandon the 28 km El Gigante-El Zauco stage.

Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen.
Photo by Enrique Gijon.
At the time, two-time World Champion Marcus Gronholm was pressing Loeb, but the Finn's Peugeot 206 experienced mechanical problems once again. This time it was a power steering failure, and Gronholm had to drive two-and-a-half stages without power steering, losing minutes to the leaders.

"This has been far from an easy rally for me and we've had our share of problems. But I think everybody knows now which directions we have to work in, and the car has demonstrated that it is quick," Gronholm reflected at the end of the event. "To be four points behind the championship leader with a new car at this stage of the season is not too bad."

The Finn is specifically looking forward to a new gearbox to replace the current four-speed unit: "I'm looking forward to the next rally, in New Zealand, as we should have some new parts on the car that will make us even more competitive."

Carlos Sainz and Marc Marti.
Photo by Enrique Gijon.
Carlos Sainz, the all-time WRC victories co-leader, was pushing himself to close the over ten-second gap to Martin on the final day. However, he rolled his Citroen Xsara on SS13, losing some 70 seconds to Solberg and dropping behind Duval as well. The Spanish veteran finished the event 1:20.9 behind the winner, demonstrating that he still has the speed to challenge for outright wins.

Mikko Hirvonen took fifth for Subaru, 21.5 seconds behind teammate Solberg. The young Finn drove a solid rally, but the team has him working on finishing consistently, and that's exactly what Hirvonen did.

"I think I could have got better had I been pushing but that's not what this one was all about for me," Hirvonen explained. "I've learnt quite a lot about the new car and the Pirellis on gravel. I've made a few changes along the way which I think will be of real benefit in the future. I'm particularly pleased that I made no real driving mistakes over the past few days. I think I still have lots to learn on the slow and twisty sections, but sometimes they went very well so I know I can do it. I'm just going to be working on my consistency now."

The first-ever WRC event in Mexico, and the first in North America in many years, was clearly a success. With Rally Mexico now complete, the tour moves on to New Zealand, with Martin and Loeb tied at 20 points, and Gronholm and Duval just six and four points behind, respectively.

More on Rally Mexico:
Day 1: Solberg's great start was for naught
Day 2: Martin puts Ford in the driver's seat
Day 3: Martin scores first season win in Mexico

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team