Sébastien Ogier holds a comfortable lead after an action-packed opening leg of Rally Mexico which sidelined a host of frontrunners.
The Frenchman minimised his losses as he ploughed a line through loose gravel on the mountain roads this morning. But he set four fastest times on cleaner tracks this afternoon to lead by 26.1sec after almost 150km of stages.
“It was a great afternoon but it wasn’t an easy one,” said the Volkswagen Polo R pilot, who won seven of the 11 opening leg tests.
Mads Ostberg and Ogier shared two stage wins each this morning, and the Norwegian led by 3.3sec in his Citroen DS3. His advantage could have been greater had he not dropped time in the final test when co-driver Jonas Andersson forgot to remove the radiator shield, which keeps the engine warm on road sections, before the start.
Ostberg made set-up changes for the afternoon and failed to find the same rhythm. Ogier delivered a crushing blow when he outpaced him by almost 18sec in the 44.03km El Chocolate stage to take a lead he never relinquished.
“We struggled a bit this afternoon, but it’s my first rally on gravel in this car and when you find conditions like we had this afternoon, you need experience of the car,” said Ostberg.
As first on the road, Jari-Matti Latvala endured the worst of the dirty conditions this morning. But he coped well and climbed from fifth to third, 42.5sec behind his Volkswagen colleague.
Mikko Hirvonen retired his Ford Fiesta RS from third with alternator failure this afternoon. Kris Meeke, who should have inherited Hirvonen’s place, went out on the same stage after breaking a suspension arm when his DS3 stepped out of line over a crest and hit a rock.
Robert Kubica took advantage of the carnage to climb to fourth on his Mexico debut but he rolled his Fiesta RS at the León race track super special. Early this morning Andreas Mikkelsen retired from second when he hit a rock and broke his Polo R’s suspension.
Elfyn Evans steered clear of trouble and lies fourth, 1.5sec clear of Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai i20. Martin Prokop is sixth ahead of Benito Guerra, who overcame steering rack problems to delight his home fans.
Chris Atkinson had a torrid morning on his Hyundai debut. Problems with the anti-lag system, brakes and broken suspension cost several minutes but the afternoon was better and he lies eighth, despite going off at the same point as Kubica rolled.
Kubica and WRC 2 leader Yuriy Protasov complete the top 10.
Tomorrow’s second leg contains seven stages and 170.08km of action, including the marathon 53.69km Otates test. Drivers restart from León at 08.30.