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The FIA World Rally Championship is set to jet across the Atlantic to Mexico, fleeing the cool European winter. At this, the third round of the season, the new World Rally Cars will compete on gravel for the first time. In the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT camp, Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle and Stéphane Lefebvre/Gabin Moreau will be driving the Citroën C3 WRCs.

RALLY MEXICO: GRAVEL GALORE BUT THE AIR IS RARE

After first appearing on the World Rally Championship calendar in 2004, Rally Mexico is now one of the season’s most popular rallies. The people from the León region quickly turned from curious onlookers into big fans of the WRC and the crews are now welcomed like heroes. This year, the excitement will be even greater than before, since this will be the first competitive outing of the World Rally Cars on gravel.

The major standout feature of the Mexican event, however, has little to do with the road surface. Varying between 1,800 and 2,700 metres above sea level, it is the altitude that makes life difficult for the engineers. The lack of oxygen has an adverse effect on both engine power and the cooling systems of the various components.

The 2017 rally also sees the introduction of a number of new features. For example, the shakedown has been brought forward to Wednesday afternoon. The rally will get underway on Thursday evening with a super special stage held on the Plaza de la Constitución, commonly known as Zócalo square, right in the centre of Mexico City. There will be no shortage of super special stages during the rest of the itinerary since the WRCs will also delight crowds in the streets of Guanajuato and León. However, the winner is likely to be the driver who performs in the mountain stages. The El Chocolate, Las Minas, El Brinco and Derramadero tests will, as ever, be decisive in determining the outcome of the rally.

THE CHALLENGES: GO HIGHER STILL

After two winter rounds, the WRC returns to a more familiar road surface. Although the high altitude significantly reduces the performances of the cars, the gravel stages will help to clarify the established pecking order among the cars and crews.

Once again, two Citroën C3 WRCs will be competing. Like in Monte-Carlo, Kris Meeke will team up with Stéphane Lefebvre in Mexico. At the Tour de Corse, a third car will be entered for Craig Breen. Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT will then head to Argentina with two cars for Meeke and Breen. After that and for the rest of the season, there will be three C3s nominated to score points at each round. In Mexico, one of the challenges will therefore be to ensure both cars secure a good result.

To prepare for this round, the team held a test session in Spain. Kris Meeke and Stéphane Lefebvre concentrated on the suspension and active central differential settings, supplementing the development work done in 2016.

Yves Matton, Citroën Racing Team Principal: “The team continues to work with determination. During the test session we held last week, we questioned certain principles of the set-up and that helped us to identify the areas in which we can improve. We are striving for a good performance level in Mexico. Given his starting position for the opening leg, Kris will be trying to get among the leaders in the hope of kick-starting his season. Meanwhile, Stéphane will need to go for position to score points for the Manufacturers’ Championship. We are very excited about going back to this event, with its very special atmosphere. The Mexico City super special stage will be a huge promotional opportunity for the WRC. Staging part of the rally in the middle of a city with a population of twenty-four million people is fantastic, both for the championship and the manufacturers.”

Laurent Fregosi, Technical Director: “For this, the season’s opening gravel rally, we think and hope that we will enjoy better performance. Our results in the opening two rounds of the season mainly come down to a lack of preparation on our part for the actual race conditions. The situation will be different in Mexico, because the C3 WRC has done most of its running on gravel. Having said that, we have learned the lessons from Sweden by correcting a certain number of issues. At the end of last week’s test session, our drivers were pleased with the car. We’ll need to turn that into competitive results, of course. Due to the high altitude, we reckon that the engine power will be similar to that of the previous generation WRCs at sea level. This reduced performance means less tyre wear, but the lack of oxygen also affects the cooling systems and particularly the brakes. It’s unlikely that we’re in for a relaxing weekend.”

Kris Meeke: “Mexico is one of the rallies I know the least, but it’s a course that I like. I think that we moved in the right direction during testing and I’m looking forward to checking that in racing conditions. Despite the loss of power, it should still be pretty enjoyable to drive the cars because we’ll be at more or less the same level as last year’s WRCs. We’ll have to guard against being too aggressive behind the wheel so as to avoid losing time. I’m also pleased to be going to Mexico City for the super special stage. If the atmosphere at the F1 Grand Prix is anything to go by, then it’s going to be a very special occasion in an iconic setting. I’ll bring my dinner jacket along in honour of 007.”

Number of appearances at the event: 2

Best result: 16th (2015)

Stéphane Lefebvre: “Apart from the mud at Wales Rally GB, I haven’t competed on gravel since Rally Poland last July. Testing helped me gradually to get into the swing of things. As we moved between various stretches of road, I was able to define a set-up that gave me confidence in the car. That’s the most important thing in order to learn and improve in a relaxed frame of mind. I’m pleased to be back in Mexico again. I really enjoyed being in the country during my only outing here in 2015. Beyond the sombreros and the cactus, it’s more the warmth and friendliness of the people, the atmosphere in the streets of Guanajuato and the magnificent scenery that make it worth the trip.”

Number of appearances at the event: 1

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