Volkswagen pilot Sebastien Ogier showed no signs of letting up this afternoon on Rally Mexico and further cemented his place at the top of the leaderboard.
Ogier concluded the morning having stretched his lead to 49 seconds, but wasn't content to rest on his laurels and after the lunchtime halt continued to push, winning all three 'proper' tests. As a result following SS16, the 8.25 kilometre El Brinco test, he was 58.5 seconds up on team-mate and closest rival, Jari-Matti Latvala, something he increased to just over a minute following the two short Super Special Stages.
"A fantastic day for us! The Polo is running absolutely perfectly and is as reliable as clockwork. Julien [Ingrassia - my co-driver] and I now have a comfortable lead, which will allow us to keep a check on the opposition," Ogier noted. "However, we will definitely not be relaxing.
"The Rally Mexico is one of the toughest on the calendar, and a lot can happen on the coarse gravel between now and the finish – especially given the fact that we still have to tackle the longest stage, 'Guanajuatito', tomorrow.
"55.92 kilometres across country at full throttle, with temperatures in the cockpit reaching up to 40 degrees. You have to call on all your strength and remain fully focussed in order to come through it well. But one thing is certain: we want sombreros and cowboy boots as trophies on the podium again. And unless we suddenly come across a closed gate tomorrow, it is looking good for us!"
Latvala meanwhile is thinking about his title bid: “An enjoyable day in a way, but no big competition - it's not been necessary. The points for second place are important and we are fighting for a championship not individual rallies as such so this is how we need to play it,” he explained.
“[Besides] I am very happy with second place,” he added. “Even this morning, Sebastien Ogier had opened such a big lead that we would not have been able to catch him under normal circumstances. At the same time, the Rally Mexico once again showed how tough it is: many teams had major problems and had to give in. Our Polo was flawless, even on the very rough sections. It was pretty tiring work in the cockpit in that heat, and the 'Otates' stage was one of the longest I have ever driven.
“Given our expectations – after all, we had to open the route yesterday, which was a definite disadvantage – and with an eye on the championship, second place would definitely be a great result,” he emphasised.
Behind the top two, Thierry Neuville looks poised to give the new Hyundai WRC team its very first podium. The Belgian was just 11.1 seconds up on Elfyn Evans after SS13, but increased the gap this afternoon and they are now split by 47.4 seconds.
“The first stage this morning was not easy because I lost the brakes towards the end of the stage and had to slow down but since then we have had a good run,” Neuville reflected. “The stages were really slippery this morning but I enjoyed driving and we took it nice and steady. We are now in a very interesting position.
“I've been carrying two spares so the car has been a bit heavier than normal and I lost a bit of time in the fast sections but I made up time on the twisty bits. In the afternoon, I was sliding a lot in SS14 (Ibarilla 2) because of the weight on the rear but SS15 (Otatitos 43.06km) was good and I had a great run. We are in a good position heading into tomorrow but our focus is still on finishing the rally rather than the overall result.”
“On the whole I think we can be pretty happy with what we have done today," Evans added. "The only real disappointment was on the longer stages – we had a couple of little impacts with a few big stones and that made me a little conservative through the rest of the stage. Then as the surface got more sandy and loose, I wasn't so comfortable with the grip and we lost time.
“For our first time here, I think we can be pleased with the progress we have made today. We know that there is still some work to do, and I don't think we'll be able to catch the third position on speed alone, but all in all it's been a comfortable day and not a bad result at the end.”
Martin Prokop rounds out the top-five in his Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC with local ace, Benito Guerra one spot back despite a scare in SS15, when he missed a braking point and went off and hit a tree.
Of the rest Hyundai's second driver, Chris Atkinson holds P7, with Rally 2 re-starters, Mikko Hirvonen and Kris Meeke eighth and ninth.
“The stages are really complicated when you haven't experienced them before," Meeke said. "You have to find the right rhythm. The roads are slippery with some very narrow, twisty sections. I was struggling to feel confident on the first pass. We are doing everything for the first time, which is part and parcel of the learning process. Once you're more familiar with the stages, everything is a lot more straightforward. So, the feeling was a lot better this afternoon and I think you can see that in the times.”
Runaway WRC2 class leader, Yuriy Protasov rounds out the top ten, more than 20 minutes up on second placed WRC2 runner, Massimiliano Rendina.
As for retirements, day two claimed three works drivers - namely Mads Ostberg, Andreas Mikkelsen and Robert Kubica. Ostberg, who had been running second, had to stop before SS13, after hitting a bank and damaging the suspension on his Citroen DS3 WRC in the previous test – he will re-start on Sunday. Mikkelsen and Kubica in contrast, both rolled, the latter damaging the roll cage on his M-Sport Fiesta RS WRC, something that means he will not be able to re-join.
Rally Mexico now concludes on Sunday with four stages on the bill and a total competitive distance of 80.22 kilometres.
Rally Mexico: Overall standings after Stage 18 (Top 10):
1. Sebastien Ogier Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 3hours 36m 42.2s M
2. Jari-Matti Latvala Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +01m 00.3s M
3. Thierry Neuville Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +04m 37.0s M
4. Elfyn Evans M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +05m 24.0s M
5. Martin Prokop Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC +08m 02.5s M
6. Benito Guerra M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +10m 33.6s
7. Chris Atkinson Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +12m 18.3s M
8. Mikko Hirvonen M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +16m 09.4s M
9. Kris Meeke Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +17m 18.9s M
10. Yuriy Protasov Ford Fiesta R5 +17m 35.0s WRC2
WRC2 standings after Stage 18 (Top 3):
1. Yuriy Protasov Ford Fiesta R5 3hours 54m 17.2s WRC2
2. Massimiliano Rendina Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X RC2 +24m 38.6s WRC 2
3. Gianluca Linari Subaru Impreza STi N15 +27m 55.8s WRC2
SS3. Andreas Mikkelsen Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC Went off M*
SS3. Ott Tanak Drive DMACK Ford Fiesta R5 Went off WRC 2
SS3. Quentin Gilbert Ford Fiesta R5 Retired WRC 2
SS3. Nicolas Fuchs Ford Fiesta RRC Suspension WRC 2
SS3. Augusto Bestard Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X RC2 Retired WRC 2
SS8. Mikko Hirvonen M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Electrical M*
SS8. Kris Meeke Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC Suspension M*
SS10. Robert Kubica RK M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Rolled M*
SS12. Lorenzo Bertelli Ford Fiesta R5 Retired WRC2
SS12/13. Mads Ostberg Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC Suspension damage – hit a bank
SS13. Andreas Mikkelsen Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC Rolled M
SS13. Robert Kubica RK M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Rolled M
* denotes re-started under Rally 2 on Saturday.
all times unofficial