KRIS meeke put a troubled start to the season behind him to lead Rally Guanajuato Mexico after a truncated but dramatic opening leg on Friday.
There was huge anticipation as the new-era World Rally Cars sampled gravel for the first time in the mountains near León and Meeke coped best in his Citroën C3 to lead Sébastien Ogier by 20.9sec.
The itinerary was shortened after a convoy of transporters delivering rally cars back to León after Thursday night’s curtain-raising action in Mexico City’s Zócalo square was delayed by a motorway accident.
The road was closed for almost six hours and the cars did not arrive back at the service park in time for the morning’s 10.00 restart. Organisers scrapped the opening two speed tests covering 75km but when the action started in late afternoon, Meeke set the pace.
A low start position ensured the Irishman enjoyed cleaner and faster roads and he won the 54.90km El Chocolate stage. Despite conceding a few seconds after stalling in the following test, he eased through the final three short asphalt stages with no issues.
“I made a mistake and lost a few seconds, but I’m quite satisfied. I’m really happy that finally we can show the potential of this car, but we still have things to do,” said Meeke, who suffered a problem-filled start to the year in Monte-Carlo and Sweden.
Ogier shrugged off an overheating engine in the El Chocolate stage.
Although air temperatures were not high by Mexican standards, overheating engines were a concern for almost every driver. Ogier drove much of El Chocolate with a warning alarm flashing in his Ford Fiesta, but he shrugged off the problem to remain well in touch.
Hyundai trio Hayden Paddon, Dani Sordo and Thierry Neuville held third, fourth and fifth in their i20 Coupes. However, all were stricken by a severe misfire in the final kilometres.
Neuville, who earlier claimed two stage wins, lost least time and ended third, 35.8sec behind Ogier. Paddon ceded almost 1min 45sec to drop to seventh while Sordo fared worst. He dropped several minutes to plunge down the order.
Juho Hänninen, leader after last night’s Mexico City stages, was fourth in a Toyota Yaris 30.6sec behind Neuville. Aside from overheating issues, the Finn could barely speak after losing his voice.
The water temperature in Ott Tänak’s Fiesta hovered at 120°C for most of El Chocolate and the Estonian dropped almost 80sec as he struggled on. He was fifth, with Stéphane Lefebvre sixth, less than 10 seconds ahead of Paddon.
Championship leader Jari-Matti Latvala was eighth, as centre differential problems and brake issues added to his engine woes. WRC 2 leader Pontus Tidemand and Eric Camilli completed the top 10.
Elfyn Evans scored a stage win and two second places in his Fiesta after also suffering overheating. However, the Welshman was burdened with a five-minute penalty after his engine was changed following Wednesday’s shakedown.
Saturday’s leg is the longest. Two identical loops in the mountains near León are divided by a 30-minute service. The day ends after two more tests at the city’s motor racing circuit and a short blast around the roads next to the service park. The nine stages cover 157.57km.
Overall standings after Friday:
1 Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle (Citroen C3 WRC) 1h01m33.8s
2 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +20.9s
3 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +56.7s
4 Juho Hänninen/Kaj Lindström (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m27.3s
5 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Ford Fiesta WRC) +1m32.9s
6 Stephane Lefebvre/Gabin Moreau (Citroen C3 WRC) +1m52.8s
7 Hayden Paddon/John Kennard (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +2m02.1s
8 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miika Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +2m.30.8s
9 Pontus Tidemand/Jonas Andersson (Skoda Fabia R5) +3m24.3s
10 Eric Camilli/Benjamin Veillas (Ford Fiesta R5) +3m59.7s