Ott Tanak leads Rally Mexico after the opening two stages of the third round of the 2023 World Rally Championship season.
Having sampled the country's high altitude gravel stages during Thursday morning shakedown, a challenge of an entirely different kind provided the first competitive action on Thursday night courtesy of two runs of the 1.12-kilometre Guanajuato superspecial stage.
Using cobblestone streets, plus a section through a former silver mine tunnel within the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the sealed-surface test always proves challenging due to grip being at a premium for the drivers thanks to a combination of having to run gravel-specification tyres and moisture forming on the already slippery roads.
M-Sport Ford's WRC points leader Ott Tanak was fastest on the first run through the stage with a 58.0s charge to outgun Toyota's defending world champion Kalle Rovanpera by 0.8s. And Tanak went fastest still when the stage was repeated a few moments later, this time taking 56.2s to complete the stage as Rovanpera and Esapekka Lappi placed equal second, 0.9s slower than Tanak.
Stan Sport is the only play to watch every round of WRC with all the action streaming ad-free, live and on demand.
“When you are arriving here it's just full of crowds, something very different, it's a very difficult stage but with all their support it's fun,” said the Rally Sweden winner. “Today was a bit of fun but tomorrow is the job. For sure it's not going to be an easy day [opening the road] but we need to maximise. I've never driven the car on gravel before so there's a lot to discover but I have high hopes.”
Tanak's performance means he takes a lead of 1.7s into Friday's stages ahead of Rovanpera, Lappi, his former Hyundai team-mate Thierry Neuville and Toyota driver Sebastien Ogier, who is chasing a record seventh win in Mexico.
“It's crazy atmosphere,” said Rovanpera. “Usually, these stages are not so enjoyable but when you drive in front of the fans it's special. But now we're done with it and we'll be sweeping the roads tomorrow.”
Ogier added: “I feel good, the real start of the rally is tomorrow, tonight is about enjoying the atmosphere and staying away from the kerbs.”
After going third and second quickest on the first and second runs respectively, Hyundai driver Lappi said: “It's amazing, very rare places where you see this kind of atmosphere, it's crazy and you don't realise how many people are here.”
An early slide cost Takamoto Katsuta vital time on his first run and the Rally Mexico rookie is ninth in the overall order heading into Friday's leg.
Rally Mexico continues with SS3, the first run through the 29.07-kilometre El Chocolate test from 0848 local time. It's ranked as one of the toughest in the WRC and is one of eight stages scheduled on Friday.