Altitude is not a word often uttered in the World Rally Championship but as the clock ticks down to next weekend's Guanajuato Rally Mexico, it will once again be front and centre in the service park.
On the opening gravel event of the 2023 campaign, how exactly the new generation Rally1 cars from M-Sport Ford, Toyota and Hyundai will perform high up in the mountains north-west of Mexico city is truly anyone's guess.
Recent visits confirmed the higher the previous generation World Rally Cars climbed towards the clouds the conditions effectively choked their performance by up to a fifth as the air became increasingly thinner.
This time around, however, the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine in the Rally1 Puma, I20 N and GR Yaris will be supported by a 100kW battery, so the power deficit 2,700 metres above sea level should be considerably less severe. Or, going by some rough paper-based calculations, that is the theory.
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As Hyundai Motorsport's Thierry Neuville explains, it is not simply going to be a case of getting in the car and driving. Instead, a lot of groundwork is going to be called for by those assigned to the petrol-electric powertrain beforehand.
“Rally México is a lovely event and is always one of my highlights of the season,” said the Belgian, who has secured three podium finishes at a meeting universally liked by World Rally competitors.
“It is a beautiful country with fantastic roads, and there is always a lot of support there. However, it will be challenging for a number of reasons: it is the first gravel rally of the season, it will be hot, and the high altitude is tough on the cars.
“This year it will be important to get the hybrid mapping correct and take advantage of that extra power,” he added. “Setting up the car to have good traction and then driving precisely will be also very important to us performing well. Our target for the weekend is to be amongst the fastest crews and fight for another podium.”
His comments have been echoed by eight-time World Rally Champion Sebastien Ogier – the winner of the event when it was last a round of the competition in 2020.
Mexico is the first time since Rally de Portugal last year that the Frenchman will have sampled similarly rough conditions, with a test in Spain at the beginning of this month designed to get him back into the swing of things. “The recent was important for me to find the best possible feeling,” he admitted.
“It will be interesting to see how the hybrid can help against the usual loss of power we feel at high altitude.
“More than ever, it could be important to use it as efficiently as possible because it could make a big difference to the performance.”
Rally Mexico kicks off next Thursday evening with a Street Stage followed by eight timed tests the following day.
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