Esapekka Lappi and Sébastien Ogier were the stand-out stars of the first leg of Rally Guanajuato México on a day where three of the leading ten Rally1 crews hit trouble on the opening El Chocolate special stage.
Lappi and fellow Finn Janne Ferm won four of the six gravel tests to Ogier’s and Vincent Landais’s two and that impressive performance by the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team crew earned them a slender lead of 5.3 seconds to take into the night halt in León.
Lappi said: “I hoped that I could fight at the top but to be leading and to be fighting all the time against Seb was not in my mind to be honest, I was confident that our pace would be good. Probably one of the best days of my career. We did a lot of work between Monte-Carlo and Sweden and we have been searching for the good set-up and that helps.”
Ogier added: “It has been a good day, not so much more we could do except taking risks and that is not the approach I like to take on this rally. I am satisfied. Well done to him (Lappi) for today. We still have some work to do to see if we can find some more pace for tomorrow.”
World Championship leader Ott Tänak started the morning first on the road but suffered turbo issues midway through the opening stage. The Estonian never recovered from that early time loss and accidents for both Pierre Louis Loubet and Jourdain Serderidis on the same El Chocolate stage gave the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team a dismal start to their Méxican gravel challenge.
Behind Lappi and Ogier, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT’s Elfyn Evans and Scott Martin finished the day in a solid third overall, an early challenge from Dani Sordo fading after the Spaniard collected a rear puncture and had to deal with the resultant dust issues inside the Hyundai. Sordo and co-driver Candido Carrera slipped back to sixth place.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe finished the day just 9.7 seconds behind Evans in fourth and had built up a useful cushion over the fifth-placed defending World Champion Kalle Rovanperä and his co-driver Jonne Halttunen. The Finn, like Tänak, struggled with an unfavourable road starting position but should be better placed to attack on Saturday.
Japan’s Takamoto Katsuta lost the rear of his Toyota on the first run through Las Minas, crashed off the track and was not able to continue.
Gus Greensmith made a successful return to the WRC2 discipline and the Briton enjoyed a strong day in his Škoda Fabia to hold an excellent seventh place in the overall rankings and a category lead of 8.5 seconds over his former M-Sport Ford team-mate Adrien Fourmaux, driving a Fiesta MkII.
Greensmith said: “The morning was a bit tricky. The tyres were overheating too much and it was quite rocky. Once I put the hard tyres on, it was okay. It’s a nice lead but it’s not a big lead. Trying to be tidy but it is a just a shame we didn’t have any soft tyres for the super specials because it killed our time. Tyre wear should not be such an issue tomorrow.”
Fourmaux had been coming under pressure from young Oliver Solberg, who was setting good times after an early spin. Cruelly, the Swede sustained a puncture on the last of the gravel stages and it cost him 1min 40sec. Defending WRC2 champions, Emil Lindholm and Reeta Hämäläinen, hold third in their Toksport WRT2-entered Škoda Fabia Evo.
Paraguay’s Diego Dominguez held a comfortable cushion over Canadian veteran Jason Bailey in the battle for WRC3 points heading to the last stage of the day.