Lappi crashes out of Rally Mexico lead

Sebastien Ogier

The two-horse race for Rally Mexico glory is now anything but after overnight leader Esapekka Lappi crashed out of the victory fight in dramatic fashion on Saturday’s opening stage to leave Sebastien Ogier in control of an event he’s won six times previously.

Lappi started the nine-stage, 126.52-kilometre third leg with a narrow 5.3s margin over his Toyota-driving rival.

Yet Lappi’s hopes of a second WRC career victory and his first for new employer Hyundai were as wrecked as the telegraph pole his out-of-control i20 N Rally1 had wiped out nearing the final four-kilometre mark of the 14.82-kilometre Ibarrilla test.

“I think I was a bit caught out,” Finn Lappi told the WRC All Live service.

“There was a right with a cut, then it goes straight to the left over a crest and I think I was a bit caught out with this cut. I was delayed on the entry on the left and we went wide where the exit narrows, we hit a bank which spin us out immediately and then with the rear we hit the electricity pole, so very unfortunate, fully my mistake.”

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Lappi’s feeling of despair in the early morning Mexico sunshine was in total contrast to the euphoria of Friday, which he’d described as “probably one of the best days of my career”, after he’d battled and beaten Ogier.

“It’s hard to swallow but on the other hand when you fight for the win you still need to push,” the 32-year-old Lappi said.

“And maybe on the other side I was not pushing hard enough actually and I didn’t have the correct rhythm. You know I was not maybe having the same flow that I have when you really push and attack, [I was] just a bit too late on the entry.”

With Lappi out, SS11 winner Ogier moved into a 27.3s lead ahead of Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans, whose margin over Thierry Neuville was 11.6s.

Sensing second place was in his grasp, Neuville clocked a trio of fastest stage times in his Hyundai to reach midday service trailing Evans by 8.7s.

But with the rerun of Ibarrilla scrapped due to Lappi’s earlier crash, SS16 provided the next opportunity for Neuville to try to close on Evans. Instead, the battling pair were subjected to an Ogier masterclass with the eight-time world champion coming out on top by a staggering 8.1s after an epic performance.

“I think it’s all down to tyre management,” a surprised Ogier suggested when quizzed at the stage finish. “I felt a lot that the tyre was dropping to the end and I was very smooth on that, so I believe they suffered more than me.”

Neuville continued his pursuit of Evans by going 2.6s faster than the Welshman on SS17. He was also quicker than his podium rival on SS18, despite a puncture, and again on SS19 to narrow the gap to 4.3s.

Ogier, meanwhile, completed Saturday’s action leading by 35.8s and firmly on course for Rally Mexico win number seven.

“Having this lead is good and I’m happy with my day, another strong day for me,” said Ogier.

“A bit of a different approach after EP [Lappi] went off on the first stage, it changed a bit our race as we didn’t need to go for too much risk. But still we managed to set some good times and increase our lead which is always good because tomorrow is still long with a lot of kilometres, one very long stage to go through, which means we cannot afford to relax.”

World champion Kalle Rovanpera slipped to 1m36.0s from the second-place battle with a time-consuming spin “in a narrow place” on SS17. However, with fifth-placed Dani Sordo, 41.9s behind at that point, Rovanpera was far from flustered. After 19 stages, Rovanpera heads Sodo by 47.2s.

Pierre-Louis Loubet’s Mexican misery continued when he wrecked his Ford Puma’s right-rear suspension hitting a bank. Despite extensive efforts to fix the damage, Loubet and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul were forced to retire for the second day running, as team-mate Ott Tanak completed Saturday with back-to-back superspecial wins.

Sixth-placed Gus Greensmith, driving a Skoda Fabia RS Rally2, was able to strengthen his WRC2 lead when Adrien Fourmaux almost rolled his Ford Fiesta Rally2 on SS18 and lost precious seconds.

WRC2 rivals Emil Lindholm, Oliver Solberg and Kajetan Kajetanowicz complete the top 10 but all five drivers were left frustrated after they were able to tackle  just five of the nine scheduled stages due to the knock-on effect of Lappi’s SS11 crash.

Takamoto Katsuta restarted on Saturday morning following his Friday crash and spun on SS18.

Sunday’s deciding leg is made up of four stages over a competitive distance of 61.36 kilometres.

Following a fourth run through the Las Dunas Superspecial from 08h05 local time, the 35.63-kilometre Otates is set to provide a sting in the tail as the event’s longest stage.

The El Brinco Power Stage is due to begin at 1218 local time Sunday March 19/0518 AEDT Monday March 20 .

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