First gravel event of the WRC year at dizzying heightsDouble world champions Ogier/Ingrassia head overseas as championship leadersTwo victories with the Polo R WRC: successful record for Volkswagen in Mexico
On to the third round of the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) with plenty of heart and at full throttle – with Corazón and Karacho. When the Volkswagen team lines up at its first gravel rally of the year, in Mexico from 05 to 08 March, it will also face another major challenge: high altitude, with sections of the route as high as 2,752 metres above sea level. The Volkswagen pairings of Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (F/F), Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Fløene (N/N) and Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (FIN/FIN) come into the unique event, which opens in the silver mining town of Guanajuato, as first, second and fourth in the World Championship standings.
“The Rally Mexico represents the first gravel rally of the year. This means that the drivers and technicians must once again adapt to completely different conditions to the ones they faced at the Rally Monte Carlo and most recently in Sweden,” said Volkswagen Motorsport Director Jost Capito. “Then there are the special stages, which really hit the heights – higher than anywhere else in the world of rallying. Coming just two weeks after the Rally Sweden, it is time to flip the switch as we strive to tame the unique conditions in Mexico – something we will need a lot of heart to achieve. As well as the drivers, the technology is also under a lot of pressure in Mexico. We have to find the best possible way to compensate for the thin air at such high altitude, as well as adapting the set-up for the gravel surfaces. However, we are confident that we can pull this off, as we have always enjoyed good results in Mexico in the past. No question: we want to win there again this year.”
The only way is up, 21 times – from 1,800 to 2,752 metres above sea level
It is enough to bring any World Rally Car to its knees: the entire Rally Mexico takes place higher up than anything the rally cars, which generate up to 318 hp, are used to facing in Europe. Whereas the highest point in the European season is 1,608 metres above sea level – on the “La Bollène-Vésubie–Sospel” special stage at the Rally Monte Carlo – the lowest point of the Rally Mexico is at exactly 1,800 metres above sea level.
In 2015, the rally’s 21 special stages are located around the geographical centre of Mexico. Thanks to a compact route, all of the stages will take place close to the service park in León. These include genuine challenges like the “roof” of the Rally Mexico – “El Chocolate”, which climbs to 2,752 metres above sea level and the highest point in the WRC season. Then there is the longest special stage of the season yet: the 55.82-kilometre “Guanojuatito”. They are complimented by more highlights and spectator magnets: it all kicks off on Thursday evening with the famous “Street Stage Guanajuato” in the heart of the capital of the host state. The 72,000 residents will be joined by swathes of rally fans in their thousands, lining the 1.01-kilometre street circuit through the tunnel, around roundabouts and down urban canyons.
Into thin air: clever engineering for extraordinary conditions
Like jogging whilst breathing through a snorkel: the high altitudes of the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato compound the effect of the air restrictor, which is limited anyway by the regulations, on the 1.6-litre turbo engines. The air sucked through the 33-millimetre opening contains less oxygen in the high regions of Mexico than elsewhere in the WRC. The consequence: the combustion is less efficient. The less oxygen the air contains, the harder the turbo chargers have to work to produce the same power. In order to avoid overstraining this component as a result of the lower air resistance, the engineers are forced to tamper with the engine control unit. The principal is: as little as possible, and only as much as necessary. Despite this, the power produced is still up to 30 per cent lower than that at the Rally Sweden, which boasts almost perfect conditions.
“On the one hand, the air pressure sinks with altitude, resulting in a reduction in the oxygen content in the air. On the other hand, so does the air resistance in the turbo charger, which thus achieves higher engine speeds than at any other rally,” said Dr. Donatus Wichelhaus, Head of Engine Development at Volkswagen Motorsport. “In order to continue to guarantee its stability, whilst at the same time losing as little performance as possible, we prepared for Mexico with various simulations in previous years.”
The price of success: early starting positions and the art of road sweeping at speed
Road sweepers are amongst the earliest to start work – and it is no different in the World Rally Championship. The first onto the special stages sweep the racing line clear of loose gravel for those behind them. This honour has more often than not gone to the Volkswagen drivers, thanks to their positions in the WRC standings. Since the start of 2015, the leader in the overall standings opens the route on the first two days of each three-day rally. As such, Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia will be the first onto the Mexican roads on Friday and Saturday, followed by Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai) and their Volkswagen team-mates Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Fløene and Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila. The Rally Mexico is regarded as the one rally on the WRC calendar, at which the road-sweeping effect is more apparent than anywhere else. The layer of fine, loose gravel is thicker in Mexico than at the other rallies.
Retrospect offers plenty of optimism: successful record for Volkswagen in Mexico
The Rally Mexico is one of ten rounds this season, at which the Polo R WRC is yet undefeated. The World Rally Car from Wolfsburg claimed its maiden win on gravel here in 2013. Back then, Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia triumphed despite “Gate Gate”, when they lost valuable time when faced with a closed cattle gate. In 2014 they repeated this success, followed closely by their Volkswagen team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila. In both years, 31 of the 45 stage wins went to one of the Volkswagen duos.
Quotes ahead of the Rally Mexico
Sébastien Ogier, Volkswagen Polo R WRC #1“I have won the first two rallies of the season, which is very reassuring for me. The pressure is definitely not on me, but those drivers behind me in the championship. As a driver, you gain extra confidence when you win a battle as close as the one between Andreas Mikkelsen, Thierry Neuville and me in Sweden. The past two rallies in Mexico have shown how comfortable I feel in Mexico. And in recent years our Volkswagen Polo R WRC has always coped superbly with the thin air at high altitude in Mexico. We can only wait and see whether the same is true in 2015 and our powerful engine can compensate for our early starting position.”
Jari-Matti Latvala, Volkswagen Polo R WRC #2“I am looking forward to the Rally Mexico, as I have some amends to make and because, as the fourth-placed man in the World Championship, I have an ideal starting position. The starting position can be decisive at the first gravel rally of the year. My goal for Mexico is to close the gap to Thierry Neuville, Andreas and Sébastien as much as possible. I missed out on points in Sweden. However, that is part and parcel of this sport and not something I can do anything about now. I now have to look forward and make the best of the situation I find myself in. When you look back through the history books, most world champions have scored points at pretty much every race. As such, I cannot afford to make any more mistakes.”
Andreas Mikkelsen, Volkswagen Polo R WRC #9“At the moment, a lot of people are talking about how I missed out on victory at the Rally Sweden. To be honest, though, I moved on from that a long time ago. It was unquestionably very disappointing for me, as I came within touching distance of my maiden WRC win. However, I prefer to take the positives out of it and now travel to Mexico full of confidence. I am matching Seb and Jari-Matti for pace at the moment. That is important for me, and I will not be hiding behind anyone in Mexico. Furthermore, my third place in Sweden has had a pleasant knock-on effect: I start as the third car onto the route at the Rally Mexico, so will not have to do so much road sweeping.”
Did you know ...
... the Rally Mexico, alias “Rally America”, alias “Corona Rally Mexico”, was held for the first time in 1979? Back then, the two largest automobile clubs in Mexico, the “Club Automovilístico Francés de México (CAF)” and the “Rally Automovil Club (RAC)” joined forces to stage the event. The state of Mexico originally hosted the rally up until 1985.
... the event returned after a six-year break in 1991? Back then, it followed the route of the El Paso de Cortés between two of the largest volcanoes in Mexico.
... the CAF then pursued a new concept? The Rally Mexico was given a more compact route, with special stages making up a larger portion of the total distance. This event was held in Valle de Bravo in 1993.
... León has served as the rally centre since 1998? At that time, the organisers took the next step towards the event becoming a round of the WRC – including a long-term business plan. From 2001 to 2003 the Rally Mexico was regarded as a potential WRC round.
... a WRC rally was finally held around León for the first time in 2004? The first winners were Markko Märtin/Michael Park (EE/GB, Ford).
... the Rally Mexico was not included on the WRC calendar in 2009, when it was held as the “International Rally of Nations”? The winners: Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor (A/A, Mitsubishi).
... Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia overcame “Gate Gate” to win in Mexico with Volkswagen in 2013? 32 kilometres into stage 18, “Otates”, they spent 37 seconds stationary in front of a closed cattle gate. Even with this lost time, they still clocked the sixth fastest time for the stage. They were subsequently re-credited the time and awarded the stage win. Victory in Mexico also marked the first victory on gravel for the Polo R WRC.
... Volkswagen claimed a double one-two in Mexico in 2014? Sébastien Ogier won, ahead of Jari-Matti Latvala. The closing Power Stage, on which bonus points were awarded to the fastest three cars, yielded the same result: Ogier followed by Latvala.
The number for the Rally Mexico: 4:28.75 minutes
Four minutes and 28.75 seconds – that is the average time, by which Sébastien Ogier has led the best of the non-Volkswagen drivers at the Rally Mexico. In 2013 he ended the rally with a lead of 3:28.9 minutes over Mikko Hirvonen (Citroën), whilst Thierry Neuville (Hyundai) trailed the victorious Frenchman by a full 5:28.6 minutes in 2014. In both cases, the double world champion had benefitted from a large number of retirements. Only once has the gap between a Volkswagen driver and the best of the rest been greater than in these two cases: in 2014, Jari-Matti Latvala was 5:54.7 minutes faster than Kris Meeke (Citroën) in Argentina.