Strong first day for SWRT amidst the rocky Mexican peaks
The Subaru World Rally Team entries of Chris Atkinson/Stephane Prevot and Petter Solberg/Phil Mills finished the first day of the season's first gravel rally in third and fourth positions overall after tackling
the harsh and unforgiving routes and oxygen-thin air of the Mexican mountains.
The rally on which Subaru has traditionally been strong started in characteristic form as Solberg and Atkinson held the top two spots after Thursday's shakedown stage. On the first day of gravel-based competition of the season, Atkinson and Prevot held a consistent third position overall. Solberg and Mills experienced early brake troubles that slipped them to sixth, but the duo had a solid afternoon to climb to fourth with two stage wins.
"We've again shown that we have the pace to win stages on this event, and despite some problems this morning Chris is on the podium and Petter is close enough to have his sights set on the top three" said Subaru World Rally Team Principal David Richards. "It has been a hard day for the cars and drivers, and it is encouraging to see that Pirelli's new gravel tyre has worked very well in what have been very tough conditions."
Today's roads were a combination of high-altitude dusty gravel stages that reached over 2700 metres above sea level and fast downhill sections, littered with large and jagged rocks. Road cleaning was a big factor in sweeping a lot of the loose material from the surface, leading to smoother roads and more grip for those further down the running order, but the risk of punctures in the sternest test yet for Pirelli's new Scorpion gravel tyre was ever-present.
Solberg started the day fifth on the road and had a promising start being fastest in the opening section of the first stage. In the last five kilometres however he struck an obstacle in the road, damaging the front end of his car, and, in an unrelated incident, experienced problems with his rear left brakes. This resulted in a loss of braking efficiency for the remainder of the morning until the problem could be rectified at the midday service.
The Norwegian lost a total of 50 seconds over the course of the morning's three stages and dropped to sixth position overall. Having sorted the problem during the half-hour service interval, Solberg and Mills mimicked their early performance by recording the fastest time on the afternoon's first speed test. As Ford's Gigi Galli and Mikko Hirvonen suffered troubles of their own, the SWRT duo climbed to fourth by the end of the day, beating Hirvonen and recording their second stage win in the penultimate head-to-head spectator stage that brought the day to a close.
The afternoon was not without added difficulty as all crews had to avoid the surprise of large rocks in the middle of the road. Solberg chose to go off the road twice to avoid such rocks, losing time as opposed damaging the car, as did Atkinson, who survived with all four tyres intact despite running over one of the rocks with the front right wheel whilst in sixth gear.
"Considering we lost a minute this morning, fourth today is not bad" said Petter Solberg. "We have won two stages, and we are pushing so hard but it will not be easy. We have two tough days left. The rocks in the stages this afternoon were incredible, just right in the middle of the road. They were so big, I don't know how they got there. If I didn't go off the road to avoid them, that would have been it. When you're going flat out, it's hard to avoid things like that but you still just have to commit."
Atkinson meanwhile started just behind his team-mate in sixth on the road. The Australian had a consistent day in third position overall, despite driving one of day's tricky and rocky stages with a malfunctioning intercom, meaning that he couldn't hear Stephane Prevot's pace notes and had to drive from memory. He didn't feel quite as comfortable with the car as he did during yesterday's shakedown route, but nevertheless recorded five top-three times from today's eight stages. On the final back-to-back spectator stage, Atkinson beat rival Henning Solberg after the first lap but suffered a spin and a stall on the second lap, losing a few seconds.
"Today has not been bad for us and we're in a good position to push hard tomorrow. We'll have to see whether we can close the gap to Sebastien and Jari-Matti as it won't be easy" said Chris Atkinson. "It was my mistake to spin in the final stage, and giving a few seconds away to these guys isn't the smartest, but that's how it goes. It won't be easy for sure, and I have Petter and Hirvonen behind so we will push hard as always and see."
The day started at 15 degrees Celsius and rose to a high of 28 degrees. The crews tackled three stages before the midday service, followed by repeat passes of each in the afternoon and two back-to-back passes of the spectator Superspecial stage between Leon and Silao. Tomorrow's route
A further eight stages spanning 341 competitive kilometres will take crews on a clockwise loop to the east of Leon and the Poliforum Rally Campus. Three stages will wind through the region's mountains in the morning before the midday service, after which the same three will be repeated. At 29.90 kilometres, the day's opening test is the longest of the rally, and also the highest of the day, peaking at 2600 metres. The day will conclude with the same back-to-back passes of the Nextel spectator Superspecial stage, a 2.2 kilometre head-to-head race within the Autodromo de Leon.