With the frozen drama of last month’s ice and snow-covered Rally Sweden in the history books, the WRC headed to the high, dusty trails of Mexico for the first gravel rally of 2015.

Featuring sharp rocks, loose dirt and obstacle-lined roads, Mexico would present significant challenges to this year’s competitors, with more than a few learning first-hand just how punishing it can be.

Rally Guanajuato Mexico is the most elevated round of the year, never dipping below 5,910 feet above sea level, with a maximum altitude of 8,860 feet. This put a huge strain on the turbocharged engines, with power outputs dropping by as much as 30 percent in the thin air.

Going into this third round of the season, Volkswagen’s Sebastien Ogier led the driver’s championship with 53 points, followed by Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville in second with 30 points. Two additional VWs followed, with Andreas Mikkelsen also carrying 30 points and Jari-Matti Latvala in fourth with 19 points. Citroen’s Mads Ostberg held fifth with 14 points.

Click Continue Reading for more from 2015 Rally Guanajuato Mexico.

Thursday


Kicking things off would be a quick nighttime blast around the streets of Guanajuato, where thousands of fans were packed in to party and watch the spectacle. Drivers would contend with high curbs, slippery cobblestones, and damp surfaces as they maneuvered through the sub-minute stage. Unmuffled exhausts reverberated off the old stone walls, including a tunnel section and full 360 degree roundabout. There was not much to gain, but plenty to lose.

Robert Kubica has shown good pace all season, but poor consistency. Despite a solid run last month in Sweden, the Polish driver was denied points due to the use of illegal boost levels. Despite this, the former F1 competitor was back and as quick as ever, laying down the first fast time of the evening.

Spain’s Dani Sordo was back as well after a no-show in the last round due to a mountain biking injury that kept him from competition.

After suffering a heartbreaking second-place finish in Sweden, Andreas Mikkelsen was taking a cautious approach in Mexico: “I have to treat this rally like a new rally… It’s hard for me to try to go the same pace as Sweden. I will not be flat out.” Mikkelsen ended the evening third on the leaderboard.

Thierry Neuville took a podium finish in Mexico last year, and showed good pace at the off, ending up in second going into Friday.

But it was the defending world champion, Sebastien Ogier, who slotted to the top after Thursday’s events were over. Jari-Matti Latvala was fourth and Mads Ostberg was fifth, with only two seconds separating the top five competitors.

Friday


As championship leader, Ogier would be the first to attack the Mexican gravel on Friday, which meant the Frenchman would be tasked with sweeping the roads to reveal a grippier, more solid line underneath for those who would follow. However, Ogier’s choice of a soft-compound tire would propel him to a pace his rivals would struggle to match, despite his road position handicap.

Stage three saw Latvala post a good time, but still fall behind the blistering Ogier. Ostberg suffered a minor spin due to a gearbox issue that dropped him into neutral as he went to grab a gear, costing him precious seconds.

But the award for the most spectacular incident went to Ott Tanak. Early on, the Estonian understeered off the road, rolling the car down an embankment and into a lake. The Ford Fiesta began to sink rapidly, forcing an emergency evacuation. Luckily, both occupants managed to exit the car unharmed, with co-driver Raido Molder smartly clutching his priceless pace notes as he treaded water. The dramatic crash may have been caused by a loss of steering incurred from a broken suspension component in the right front corner.



At the end of stage three, Ogier retained the lead, Neuville held second, Meeke moved up to third thanks to a stage win, Mikkelsen was in fourth, and Latvala rounded off the top five.

Stage four, called “El Chocolate,” saw Thierry Neuville pushing hard to make up time towards the rally leader. The Belgian was running the right tire compound, which gave him the speed, but a sideways slide off the road kept him from making much progress. Neuville recovered quickly, but lost time. Latvala was also struggling, losing 10 seconds to Ogier. Adding to the list of casualties was New Zealander Hayden Paddon, who’s first experience in Mexico came to an end when he lost the rear of his i20, going wide into a rock, forcing him to pull over and park.

In the very same corner, Kris Meeke also crashed, carrying far too much speed, overshooting the bend and giving the high opposite wall a full broadside, momentarily punting him onto two wheels. The car was toast, and that was that for the Northern Irishman’s rally.

Kubica was yet another name to add to the list of stage victims, with one side of his car meeting the full brunt of the Mexican countryside. His valiant effort to continue was subsequently met with a second uncontrollable crash that rolled the car, and thus, Kubica’s day was finished.

After a demolition derby of incidents, Ogier emerged unscathed, with Neuville trailing 13 seconds behind, followed by Latvala, Ostberg, and Mikkelsen.

Stage five, called “Las Minas” in a reference to Mexico’s silver mining heritage, saw Elfyn Evans dodging cows that happened to be grazing at the side of the road. Thankfully, no incident resulted, with the young driver gaining a spot in the top five before getting the boot from Mikkelsen.

Stage seven, known as "Los Mexicanos," saw organizers put a few divers out on the nearby lake just in case there was a repeat of Tanak’s off-terra excursion. Latvala took the stage win, granting him third-place position.

The second pass through "El Chocolate" had Ogier flying along without incident. However, the same couldn’t be said for Neuville, who hit a ditch, taking a tire off the rim. The car snapped sideways a few corners later, pitching Neuville in a roll down an embankment only a kilometer from the end of the stage.

That gave Latvala incentive to push towards Ogier, chipping away at the Frenchman’s lead. After fixing his gearbox issues, Ostberg was also back in the hunt, posting the fastest time through stage nine.

At the end of a wreckage-filled Friday, Ogier maintained his lead, followed by Latvala 13 seconds behind, Ostberg trailing by 29 seconds in third, Mikkelsen 45 seconds off the pace in fourth, and Evans a minute down in fifth.

Saturday


After pulling Tanak’s Ford Fiesta from its watery parking space, the M-Sport service team was given a three-hour window to make it road-worthy and put the Estonian back into competition. Despite spending 10 hours under 15 feet of water, the team miraculously got the car up and running. Unfortunately, it once again came to a halt after refueling, but the M-Sport team was unfazed, and would try for another restart on Sunday.

Thierry Neuville was also back after crashing out from second place the previous day, starting at 19th on Saturday.

After spending the previous day sweeping the loose stuff, Ogier would be seventh on the road going forward, giving the defending world champion better grip to further extend his lead. Latvala wasn’t far behind, but hesitated slightly through the opening stages due to the possibility of a tire puncture, dropping a few 10ths to his teammate. Ostberg was third-fastest in the opening stage, once again showing good pace. The leaderboard remained unchanged going into stage 12.

On the next stage, Latvala had a big moment, ping-ponging between hard bits on either side of the road. He managed to maintain his momentum, but the Polo R was obviously hurt, which meant Latvala had to slow, momentarily parking on the roadside before continuing. The left rear suspension was completely mangled, with the wheel tearing itself off, forcing Latvala to limp across the finish line. Without all four wheels attached, Latvala’s day was over, forcing a restart for Sunday.

Ostberg took full advantage of the Finn’s misfortune, passing Latvala on the stage and on the leaderboard, putting him 50 seconds behind the rally leader. Mikkelsen moved to third with 27 seconds between him and second place, followed by Evans in fourth. Spain’s Dani Sordo slotted into the top five going into the big airtime of stage 13.

Also known as "El Brinco," stage 13 saw huge, dust-propelled launches that delighted rally fans lining the ramp to catch a glimpse of the flying racers. One such airman was Dani Sordo, who managed to find his rhythm and claim a stage win.

The push was on, but a malfunction in the right front suspension caused Ostberg to spin on the first corner. The Norwegian was able to get back underway, but lost time, dropping him to 68 seconds behind Ogier.


Each of the top five positions remained unchanged going into stage 15, but Mikkelsen was closing in on Ostberg in an all-Norwegian fight for second, with the gap between the two down to only five seconds.

Unfortunately for Sordo, a puncture to his left front tire delaminated the rubber and disintegrated the i20’s surrounding body work, adding a full minute to the Spaniard’s time and shoring up Evans’ position in fourth going into Sunday.

Sunday


After drying out a bit, Ott Tanak was back on Sunday, a testament to the incredible abilities of the M-Sport mechanics supporting him.

Neuville was back and pushing as well, vying for a break into the point positions from 11th. A fourth-fastest time on the opening stage on Sunday put him into 10th.

Mikkelsen continued to battle for second, but a low-speed spin almost took him down an embankment and into the brush. Recovery was quick, but the gap to Ostberg was extended to eight seconds.

On the penultimate stage, a herd of cows blocked Evan’s progress, costing the Brit time and throwing him a bit off his rhythm. Thankfully, his position remained intact, thus earning him a best rally finish at fourth.

Neuville managed to claw his way up another two positions to eighth on the final stage of the rally, netting a few more precious championship points.

Sordo rounded off the top five, a good showing after missing Rally Sweden.

The fight for second continued to the last, with Ostberg and Mikkelsen pushing each other to the very edge. Mikkelsen was second-fastest on the final stage, but it wasn’t enough to eclipse Osteberg, who took his first podium finish of 2015.

But it was Sebastien Ogier who took the stage and overall rally victory, giving the Frenchman his 27th career win and his third consecutive win for 2015. Ogier looked cool and composed from the off, keeping all four on the road while the other front-runners dropped like flies. “Everything was really good, the car was perfect, the tire choice was perfect,” Ogier remarked. “I mean, I miss some more to say, but really, couldn’t do better this weekend.”

Once the dust had settled, Ogier maintained his lead in the championship with 81 points, followed by Mikkelsen with 47 points, Neuville with 35 points, Ostberg with 32 points and Evans with 26 points. The manufacturer’s championship sees VW in the lead with 99 points, Hyundai in second with 75 points, Ford in third with 48 points, and Citroen in fourth with 42 points.

The WRC now heads to South America for the rugged mountain roads of Argentina. Make sure to check in with TopSpeed later next month for all the highlights.

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