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First gravel event of the WRC year at dizzying heights

Double world champions Ogier/Ingrassia head overseas as championship leaders

Two victories with the Polo R WRC: successful record for Volkswagen in Mexico

On to the third round of the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) with plenty of heart and at full throttle – with Corazón and Karacho. When the Volkswagen team lines up at its first gravel rally of the year, in Mexico from 05 to 08 March, it will also face another major challenge: high altitude, with sections of the route as high as 2,752 metres above sea level. The Volkswagen pairings of Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (F/F), Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Fløene (N/N) and Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (FIN/FIN) come into the unique event, which opens in the silver mining town of Guanajuato, as first, second and fourth in the World Championship standings.

“The Rally Mexico represents the first gravel rally of the year. This means that the drivers and technicians must once again adapt to completely different conditions to the ones they faced at the Rally Monte Carlo and most recently in Sweden,” said Volkswagen Motorsport Director Jost Capito. “Then there are the special stages, which really hit the heights – higher than anywhere else in the world of rallying. Coming just two weeks after the Rally Sweden, it is time to flip the switch as we strive to tame the unique conditions in Mexico – something we will need a lot of heart to achieve. As well as the drivers, the technology is also under a lot of pressure in Mexico. We have to find the best possible way to compensate for the thin air at such high altitude, as well as adapting the set-up for the gravel surfaces. However, we are confident that we can pull this off, as we have always enjoyed good results in Mexico in the past. No question: we want to win there again this year.”

The only way is up, 21 times – from 1,800 to 2,752 metres above sea level

It is enough to bring any World Rally Car to its knees: the entire Rally Mexico takes place higher up than anything the rally cars, which generate up to 318 hp, are used to facing in Europe. Whereas the highest point in the European season is 1,608 metres above sea level – on the “La Bollène-Vésubie–Sospel” special stage at the Rally Monte Carlo – the lowest point of the Rally Mexico is at exactly 1,800 metres above sea level.

In 2015, the rally’s 21 special stages are located around the geographical centre of Mexico. Thanks to a compact route, all of the stages will take place close to the service park in León. These include genuine challenges like the “roof” of the Rally Mexico – “El Chocolate”, which climbs to 2,752 metres above sea level and the highest point in the WRC season. Then there is the longest special stage of the season yet: the 55.82-kilometre “Guanojuatito”. They are complimented by more highlights and spectator magnets: it all kicks off on Thursdayevening with the famous “Street Stage Guanajuato” in the heart of the capital of the host state. The 72,000 residents will be joined by swathes of rally fans in their thousands, lining the 1.01-kilometre street circuit through the tunnel, around roundabouts and down urban canyons.

Into thin air: clever engineering for extraordinary conditions

Like jogging whilst breathing through a snorkel: the high altitudes of the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato compound the effect of the air restrictor, which is limited anyway by the regulations, on the 1.6-litre turbo engines. The air sucked through the 33-millimetre opening contains less oxygen in the high regions of Mexico than elsewhere in the WRC. The consequence: the combustion is less efficient. The less oxygen the air contains, the harder the turbo chargers have to work to produce the same power. In order to avoid overstraining this component as a result of the lower air resistance, the engineers are forced to tamper with the engine control unit. The principal is: as little as possible, and only as much as necessary. Despite this, the power produced is still up to 30 per cent lower than that at the Rally Sweden, which boasts almost perfect conditions.

“On the one hand, the air pressure sinks with altitude, resulting in a reduction in the oxygen content in the air. On the other hand, so does the air resistance in the turbo charger, which thus achieves higher engine speeds than at any other rally,” said Dr. Donatus Wichelhaus, Head of Engine Development at Volkswagen Motorsport. “In order to continue to guarantee its stability, whilst at the same time losing as little performance as possible, we prepared for Mexico with various simulations in previous years.”

The price of success: early starting positions and the art of road sweeping at speed

Road sweepers are amongst the earliest to start work – and it is no different in the World Rally Championship. The first onto the special stages sweep the racing line clear of loose gravel for those behind them. This honour has more often than not gone to the Volkswagen drivers, thanks to their positions in the WRC standings. Since the start of 2015, the leader in the overall standings opens the route on the first two days of each three-day rally. As such, Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia will be the first onto the Mexican roads on Friday and Saturday, followed by Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai) and their Volkswagen team-mates Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Fløene and Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila. The Rally Mexico is regarded as the one rally on the WRC calendar, at which the road-sweeping effect is more apparent than anywhere else. The layer of fine, loose gravel is thicker in Mexico than at the other rallies.

Retrospect offers plenty of optimism: successful record for Volkswagen in Mexico

The Rally Mexico is one of ten rounds this season, at which the Polo R WRC is yet undefeated. The World Rally Car from Wolfsburg claimed its maiden win on gravel here in 2013. Back then, Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia triumphed despite “Gate Gate”, when they lost valuable time when faced with a closed cattle gate. In 2014 they repeated this success, followed closely by their Volkswagen team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila. In both years, 31 of the 45 stage wins went to one of the Volkswagen duos.

Quotes ahead of the Rally Mexico

Sébastien Ogier, Volkswagen Polo R WRC #1
“I have won the first two rallies of the season, which is very reassuring for me. The pressure is definitely not on me, but those drivers behind me in the championship. As a driver, you gain extra confidence when you win a battle as close as the one between Andreas Mikkelsen, Thierry Neuville and me in Sweden. The past two rallies in Mexico have shown how comfortable I feel in Mexico. And in recent years our Volkswagen Polo R WRC has always coped superbly with the thin air at high altitude in Mexico.