Atkinson challenges for the lead after wildly unpredictable second day in Mexico
In a turbulent day of competition on Rally Mexico, Chris Atkinson and Stephane Prevot grabbed second position overall aboard their Subaru Impreza WRC2007. Petter Solberg and Phil Mills
however fell foul of the conditions and were forced to retire mid-way through the morning's stages.
Atkinson and Solberg started the day in third and fourth positions respectively. Today's routes provided no respite from the rigours crews faced yesterday, and the rocky and punishing mountain roads claimed their victims amongst the front-runners, as did the combination of heat and altitude on this notoriously harsh rally.
"Today we have had mixed fortunes in very challenging conditions" said Subaru World Rally Team Principal David Richards. "Unfortunately Petter's car suffered a transmission failure that forced his retirement from a strong fourth position, but Chris has done a very good job to put himself on target for his highest WRC finish."
Atkinson and Prevot had a consistent morning, not taking any unnecessary risks to keep in touch with the leading duo. The gap behind them grew with the early retirement of teammate Solberg, followed in the afternoon by Ford's Mikko Hirvonen who lost three minutes with a puncture after going off the road. Settled in a comfortable third, the afternoon's stages proceeded to reshape the leading trio.
Atkinson was promoted to second overall, ahead of Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala when the Finn suffered engine problems in stage 13, and extended his gap to a comfortable 1m 05seconds over third place going into the final day of the third round of the World Rally Championship.
"We were settled for third this morning and I was just focussed on matching Jari-Matti's pace" said Chris Atkinson. "Now we find ourselves in second which is good for the team and Subaru. It's a shame for Jari, but we've had our problems and that's the way it is. We have a little bit of a gap each way but the plan doesn't change. We'll not take any silly risks and just focus on matching the gaps to Sebastien and Jari tomorrow. We had a few small problems this afternoon with starts and lost a few seconds. The gap is comfortable but it won't be easy tomorrow. It'll be tricky and very loose, and we'll still need to push."
Solberg's day started strongly, the Norwegian matching the leaders for pace in the first section of the opening stage and retaining his fourth position overall. Fifth placed Mikko Hirvonen had reduced the gap by a few seconds by the start of stage eleven and it appeared a great battle for fourth would ensue.
Three-quarters of the way through the stage however, Solberg and Mills experienced a loss of drive to the front left wheel and lost over four minutes as they limped through the remainder of the route, conceding the position. The duo stopped at the end of the stage to examine the problem and attempt a fix to enable them to cover the remaining 53 kilometres back to the midday service. It proved however to be a problem that was not possible to rectify at the roadside, and the only course of action was to retire them from the day and transport the car back to service.
Once back in the team's service area the crew descended upon the number five Impreza, fixing the car to allow Solberg and Mills to restart tomorrow's stages under Superally regulations. They will carry a 30 minute penalty for the stages missed today but will still be eligible to score Manufacturers' Championship points.
"Today was not good for us" said Petter Solberg. "I didn't feel comfortable with the car this morning on the loose surface, and then we had the drive problem which forced us to retire. It's so frustrating when we had the speed early on in this event but we are now so far back."
Today's route stretched 341.02 kilometres, 157.32 of which were competitive speed tests. Following the same format as yesterday, crews tackled three stages before the midday service, after which they made second passes of the same three. The day was similarly brought to a close with two back-to-back passes of the Nextel spectator Superspecial stage, in the last running of which Atkinson was joint-fastest with rally-leader Sebastien Loeb
Similar to yesterday's mountain passes, today's stages were all at altitude. The highest test was the first of the day, the 29.9 kilometre Ibarrilla which peaked at an oxygen-thin 2600 metres above sea level.
The final day of Rally Mexico is considerably shorter at only 143 competitive kilometres over four stages. It is really only a half day of rallying as the competition is brought to a close by the fifth and final running of the Nextel spectator Superspecial stage at 1134hrs local time. Although this stage will only be run once, crews will complete two consecutive laps of the course. The day opens with the Leon stage, the second highest of the event with over 75 per cent of the route above 2200 metres. Expect to see engines challenged further in the thin oxygen.