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Race Watch 7

Rally Mexico 2020

Two winners from two rallies, yet neither of the World Champions on the grid have been on the top step. Is that about to change or will their teammates continue to overshadow them in Mexico?

SO, WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED AND WHAT DID I THINK OF IT?
MORE IMPORTANTLY, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THESE TOPICS?
LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW AND LET’S GET A DISCUSSION GOING!

Welcome to Race Watch, a supplementary feature running alongside my blog designed for me to project any opinions that may have arisen from the motorsport events I viewed over the previous weekend.

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Coronavirus. Everyone’s talking about it, many people are contracting it and, sadly, some are dying from it. The global pandemic has caused almost every major sporting event worldwide to be either cancelled or postponed, and so thousands have resorted to watching Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibault Courtois battle Mercedes-AMG F1 reserve driver Esteban Gutierrez on the F1 2019 game. Yes, really.

Luckily, South America’s Coronavirus situation isn’t as concerning as much of the rest of the world, and so some sporting events were able to take place. For example, the Paraguayan prison where footballer Ronaldinho is currently housed held a football tournament, for the prize of a 16kg suckling pig. Ronaldinho’s side won the final 11-2, with the former Barcelona player scoring 5 and assisting the other 6. Also, the Mexican round of the WRC took place.

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Yes, the first flyaway round of the World Rally Championship took place, starting with a pair of short, 1-kilometre dashes through the town of Guanajuato on Thursday night, before hitting the surrounding dust-filled hills on Friday and Saturday. Unfortunately, Sunday’s final 3 stages were cancelled to ensure teams were able to fly home before travel restrictions became too severe.

Thursday night, as previously mentioned, kicked things off. A back-to-back set of runs through the streets of Guanajuato, including a tight section through a tunnel, and a prolonged drift around a roundabout. The first pass saw just two drivers complete the stage in under a minute, with the joint championship leaders Thierry Neuville and Elfyn Evans setting 59.1s and 59.5s runs respectively. Second time round all 9 of the WRC category cars broke the minute mark, with Neuville once again setting the pace in front of Evans. Ott Tanak took the overnight third place, with Teemu Suninen fourth and Dani Sordo, making his first appearance of the season, fifth. However, this was just the warm up.

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Friday morning, and the famous El Chocolate stage kicked the rally proper off. It was also El Chocolate that saw the first casualties of the race. Dani Sordo lost nearly five-and-a-half minutes due to a loose radiator pipe, Ken Block, competing in his Ford Escort Cosworth, had overheating issues, causing him to retire, and Oliver Solberg, who finished Thursday night as the fastest non-WRC car, hit a rock, causing his car to drain itself of oil. At the front of the field, though, was reigning champion Tanak, who was more than 10 seconds clear of former champion Sebastien Ogier, who had previously won this event 5 times with 3 different manufacturers. Suninen and Esapekka Lappi continued the promising form for M-Sport, with third and fourth on the stage.

Evans and Neuville’s times were hampered by being the first cars onto the stage, meaning they were “sweeping” the road for everyone else behind. This “sweeping” is where the first few cars are removing the loose top layer of dust on the road as they drive, meaning there is more grip for subsequent racers, and this is estimated to give the following car an advantage of 0.1 seconds per kilometre. Over the 31km El Chocolate stage, this means that Tanak theoretically had an 18.6 second advantage over Evans, just by starting 6th on the road.

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Regardless, this is a challenge that is associated with leading the championship, and one that drivers such as Ogier and Tanak have overcome on their path to winning championships. Other challenges include issues with the car, and Ott certainly had one of those.

Stage 4 saw the Estonian lose 45 seconds to Ogier due to damaging the rear-right corner of his car. This dropped him from first to 8th overall, with the Frenchman inheriting the lead of the rally, a lead he did not relinquish for the rest of the day. An up-and-down day for Sordo continued, as he finished second on stage 4 before winning stage 5, only to have more issues on stage 6, before retiring the car altogether on stage 7.

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Another driver to bow out of proceedings after the seventh stage was Esapekka Lappi, although this was through no fault of his own. The car caught fire just after the end of the stage, and after failed attempts to extinguish the flames, the Finn valiantly drove the car away from any spectators, before fleeing the scene and watching on as his machine became nothing more than an inferno.

After a cancelled stage 8 due to time delays, stage 9 saw yet another World Rally car left at the wayside. Electrical issues saw Neuville grind to a halt, leaving just 6 of the 9 WRC-spec cars running, and more importantly just a single Hyundai in Tanak. Not that this worried Ott, as he won stages 7 and 9, before Ogier was fastest through the two-at-a-time stages 10 and 11, and Kalle Rovanpera took the spoils on 12, the final stage of the day. Going into the weekend, this saw Sebastien Ogier leading the overall times, 13.2 seconds ahead of Teemu Suninen, who was working efficiently under the radar. Elfyn Evans was third, however this was more due to others’ toil than his own pace, and Tanak was fourth, just 2.3s ahead of young Rovanpera.

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Onto Saturday, and Ogier picked up where he left off, winning the opening stage from Tanak. Neuville, not enjoying his role as road-sweeper after re-joining the race under restart rules, took a tactical break between stages 13 and 14, ensuring he started the second stage of the day fourth on the road rather than first. Clearly, he much preferred this position, as he duly won stage 14 from his teammate Tanak. Gus Greensmith, who was running in the third M-Sport Ford Fiesta, ran into troubles, however, losing his throttle after a tight hairpin, resulting in a 10-minute stoppage whilst he changed the car’s ECU.

The Hyundai’s spent the majority of the day lamenting their earlier misfortunes, however, as they set about showcasing the speed of their car. Tanak, determined to chase down Suninen’s overall second place, set the pace on stages 15, 17 and 18, whilst teammate Neuville, who had nothing to play for down the order, won stages 16 as well as 19 through 21. In fact, Hyundai took 5 1-2 stage results from 9 Saturday stages. Team boss Andre Adamo must have been thinking “what could’ve been!”

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Tanak’s pursuit of Suninen was eventually successful, managing to overhaul the overnight 20 second advantage the Finn had in just 6 stages. Nobody, however, was able to get close to Ogier, who made it six Rally Mexico wins with 4 different manufacturers. A 20 second lead at the start of the day only grew from there, eventually taking the spoils by 27.8 seconds from Estonian Tanak. Teemu Suninen did manage to bring Ford their first podium of the season, whilst Elfyn Evans came home in fourth, followed by Kalle Rovanpera in fifth. Pontus Tidemand, driving in the WRC2 category in a Skoda Fabia, finished an impressive sixth overall, putting him joint 8th in the drivers’ championship despite not piloting the top-class of vehicle!

Speaking of the drivers’ championship, what does it look like? Well, a win here to join a second and a fourth in the previous two rounds means that Ogier takes the lead here, too, with 62 points. He’s 8 points ahead of Evans, who in turn is 12 points ahead of Neuville, who stands on 42. Rovanpera (40) and Tanak (38) are hot on his heels, however.

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It seems that this’ll be the standings for a while, too. Rally Argentina, originally scheduled for 23rd-26th April, has been postponed, meaning the next confirmed event is Portugal, between 21st and 24th May, although this could also change, due to the uncertainty caused by that virus…

What are your thoughts, then? Did you catch any of this weekend’s rally, or were you watching the reruns of classic F1 races on Sky? Let me know in the comments!

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