TOYOTA GAZOO Racing had suffered bitter experiences at Rally Mexico for two years in succession; this year, however, Tänak takes second to demonstrate the progress of the Yaris WRC

    Rally Mexico takes place at altitudes of more than 2,000 meters and in maximum temperatures of more than 30 degrees. It is said to be the WRC rally which places the greatest stress on the engine. The rally’s highest altitude is more than 2,700 meters—this is similar in height to the seventh station of Mt. Fuji. The thin air means that engines cannot avoid losing significant power. The stages feature a succession of steep uphill slopes, and the cars are at full throttle for long periods. However, since there are also many twisting turns, the average speed remains low and the radiators do not receive enough air. The teams therefore cannot expect to receive much natural cooling. In fact, in 2017—the year TOYOTA GAZOO Racing first entered the Yaris WRC—and in 2018, the team suffered greatly due to insufficient cooling performance.

    Immediately after the 2018 edition of Rally Mexico, the TOYOTA GAZOO Racing World Rally Team began to work on improving the Yaris WRC’s cooling performance. High temperatures were also expected at the Rally of Turkey, which takes place in the second half of the season, and so the team’s first goal was to prevent a rise in engine temperature in Turkey. The team asked their partner company DENSO to cooperate on developing updated radiators, which are key cooling components. During the development process, the team carried out tests in the Toyota Motorsport GmbH (TMG) wind tunnel in Germany. Created in this way, the new radiators significantly improved the cooling performance of the Yaris WRC, and the car was able to secure victory in the scorching heat of the Rally of Turkey.

    Working with DENSO to deliver an improved cooling package

    However, in addition to extreme heat, Rally Mexico takes place at high altitudes, and this makes the conditions even tougher than in Turkey. As a result, the team worked even more closely with DENSO, and again engaged in development to further increase cooling performance. The idea was not only to increase the performance of the radiators, but also to develop a new electric fan that was both more powerful and more efficient. Since they could not expect to receive natural cooling, the team worked hard to ensure that the engine would be cooled sufficiently, even when climbing uphill at low speeds. TMG is responsible for engine development; DENSO develops the cooling components; the team’s TOYOTA GAZOO Racing Finnish factory is entrusted with developing the car body; and GAZOO Racing Company oversees problem resolution. Working closely together, these four companies succeeded in creating a new cooling package. Before the opening rally of the 2019 season, the team took the Yaris WRC to DENSO’s wind tunnel to carry out tests in the sorts of high-temperatures they expected to encounter in Mexico. The team was able to confirm that the car’s cooling performance in the wind tunnel was almost identical to the simulations they had carried out beforehand.

    But tests are just tests. Unexpected events occur during actual rallies. Since WRC regulations only permit driving tests to be carried out in Europe, the team was unable to conduct tests in Mexico before the start of the rally. For this reason, although the engineers felt that development of the cooling package had gone well, they still had some doubts when they lined up at León, where the rally was held. DENSO’s Japanese engineers also met up with the team in Mexico to provide technical support. Determined to ensure the Yaris WRC was completely ready, the TOYOTA GAZOO Racing World Rally Team continued to work until just before the start of the rally.

    The improvements are successful—the new cooling system completely prevents a rise in engine temperature

    The improved cooling package succeeded in preventing a rise in engine temperature for the entire rally. The team had managed to ensure that engine temperatures remained within a safe range at last year’s Rally Mexico, too; but in order to do this, they had to adjust the program to partially limited engine output, and this meant that team drivers were unable to drive at full throttle all the time. At this year’s Rally Mexico, however, the Yaris WRC’s cooling system retained a margin of safety even when the engine was driven at full power in high temperatures. As a result, the car was able to record fastest times in nine out of the rally’s 21 Special Stages. Previously, the Yaris WRC had struggled in Mexico—this season was the first time it had been able to demonstrate its true potential. In fact, all three cars completed the rally, with Ott Tänak finishing second, Kris Meeke fifth, and Jari-Matti Latvala eighth overall. Tänak and his co-driver Martin Järveoja maintained their positions at the top of the drivers’ and co-drivers’ championships, while the TOYOTA GAZOO Racing World Rally Team also remained first in the race for the manufacturers’ title.

    Tänak starts first—a disadvantage—but makes rapid progress

    After winning the previous event, Rally Sweden, Tänak led the drivers’ championship. For this reason, he knew that he would start the first stage of Day Two—when the gravel stages began—at the top of the running order. Mexico’s gravel stages are covered with loose, slippery gravel. The drivers at the top of the running order struggle for grip on the loose gravel and, if the conditions are dry, lose a significant amount of time. However, unless Tänak was among the rally leaders at the end of Day Two, he would again start from a disadvantageous position on Day Three—because on Day Three, the running order was reversed, meaning that those at the bottom of the rally rankings would start first.

    Day Two was therefore key to whether Tänak would be able to finish toward the top of the overall standings. Despite the huge pressure, Tänak remained calm and told himself: “No matter what times you record, stay calm, and continue to drive your own race.” As it happened, there was an extremely large amount of loose gravel on Day Two, and on SS2 Tänak was only able to set the eighth fastest time. On a 31.57 kilometer-long stage, Tänak was 21.4 seconds slower than the stage winner—this meant he was slower than the leader by 0.68 seconds per kilometer. As expected, it was a difficult start. However, Tänak was completely calm after finishing the stage. It was only natural for the leader of the drivers’ championship to have a disadvantageous starting order. Previous champions had all overcome the difficulties of Mexico on their way to WRC victory. Tänak was fully prepared to face up to this unfavorable situation.

    Tänak records the fastest time in difficult course conditions

    On SS3, Tänak improved his driving on the loose gravel, and reduced his gap to the leaders to 0.41 seconds per kilometer. In the afternoon, the drivers repeated the stages from the morning session; on SS5—which was a rerun of SS2—Tänak managed to shrink the gap to the leader from 21.4 seconds in the morning to just 11 seconds. There was less loose gravel on the course in the afternoon, and Tänak was 26 seconds faster than in the morning. Then on SS7—a stage that only took place in the afternoon—Tänak set the fastest time, despite driving on unfavorable road surface conditions. He then came second on both of the two short stages that followed.

    After the first Special Stage of Day Two, Tänak was in eighth position. By the end of Day Two, however, he had risen to fourth overall. As a result, on Day Three he started the Special Stages in fourth in the running order, and went on the counterattack. There were three drivers above him, including teammate Kris Meeke in third. In terms of the starting order, Tänak was at a slight disadvantage because he started before them; however, the Estonian drove as fast as he could, and remained calm as he did so.

    Meeke takes the rally lead on Day Three, but…

    On SS10, the first stage of Day Three, Meeke recorded his first fastest time of Rally Mexico and immediately took the rally lead. However, he unfortunately suffered a puncture on SS11, lost approximately 90 seconds, and fell to fifth overall. Meeke chose not to change the tire during the stage and, instead, drove to the end with the puncture. Although he was able to minimize the time he lost, he damaged his suspension; this meant that he was forced to drive significantly slower on SS12. Considering his overall position in the rally, it might have been better if Meeke had stopped and changed his tire during SS11. Of course, it is easy to make such a judgment in hindsight—and the team recognized that Meeke’s decision on SS11 was not a mistake. In any case, despite suffering the puncture and suspension damage, Meeke succeeded in drawing out the Yaris WRC’s full potential.

    Latvala recorded stage wins on both SS11 and SS12. The Finn had retired toward the end of Day Two with an electrical issue—there was a problem with his alternator, which meant the car was no longer able to generate electricity. At that point, Latvala had been in fourth overall, with a good chance of fighting for a podium place. This made his retirement more disappointing but, using the Rally 2 rule, he rejoined the rally on Day Three. Latvala refocused and did all he could to acquire as many championship points as possible.

    Tänak makes an aggressive tire choice and moves up to second overall

    After Meeke fell down the standings, Tänak found himself in third place overall. The Estonian recorded the fastest times on Special Stages 14 and 15, which took place in the afternoon of Day Three. By the end of the day, Tänak had reduced the gap to second place to just 2.2 seconds. Day Four—the final day of Rally Mexico—featured just three Special Stages with a short combined length of 60.17 kilometers. His rivals were extremely fast so it would not be easy to overtake them. But Tänak was confident—his Yaris WRC was both high-performing and reliable. He felt that he would at least be able to secure second place, and he still had a chance of overall victory. Since overtaking his rivals would be almost impossible with a defensive strategy, Tänak went on the offensive. He held discussions with his trusted engineer, Paul Murphy, until just before he left the morning service, and decided on a different choice of tires to his rivals.

    The first two stages of Day Four took place in the morning, and this meant that course temperatures would be slightly low. Normally, medium compound tires would have been suitable and, in fact, the majority of drivers chose medium tires. However, Tänak wished to prioritize wear resistance, and so he opted for a set of four hard tires and one medium tire. Tänak’s plan was to make up for the difference in the compounds with his driving.

    Tänak’s strategy was a success: he won both of the morning Special Stages on Day Four, and rose to second overall. However, there was still a gap of 24.4 seconds to the leader, Sébastien Ogier, who was a four-time winner of Rally Mexico. It would be difficult to overturn this gap on the short, final stage, but Tänak refused to give up and fought to the very end. The final Special Stage was also the Power Stage, with bonus championship points available to the top five finishers, and Tänak went on the attack. His performance was unfortunately hindered by damage to his wheel, but he managed to hold on to second place overall. Despite an unfavorable position in the starting order, Tänak had succeeded in securing second place at Rally Mexico—this was a superb result, and more significant than it appeared.

    The team shows rapid progress to take its first-ever Rally Mexico podium—but problems remain

    Meeke took second place on the Power Stage, and secured four bonus points, but he had been just 0.1 seconds away from first place. Nevertheless, considering this was Meeke’s first gravel rally at the wheel of the Yaris WRC, he demonstrated superb speed. Meeke commented: “Honestly, the car was fantastic. When I get better used to it, I should be able to go even faster.” Meeke has achieved solid results in the first three rallies of the season, and contributed manufacturers’ championship points to the team. The more he drives the Yaris WRC, the better the performance.

    Team principal Tommi Mäkinen was full of praise for Tänak and the rest of the team: “Considering the conditions he faced, Ott’s second place was the best possible result. He did an outstanding job, and the car showed excellent performance and reliability.” The team’s steady improvements to the cooling system enabled the Yaris WRC to respond to Tänak’s driving. At last, the team had succeeded in erasing the disappointments of the last two years.

    However, the alternator issue that struck Latvala’s car on Day Two was a major point of concern. In fact, Latvala had suffered an alternator issue at last year’s Rally Mexico as well. Although there is a strong likelihood that the cause of the issue was different at this year’s rally, it does not change the fact that an issue arose. In the end, Latvala broke a sump guard at the end of Day Four and finished the rally in eighth position overall. However, if he had not had alternator issues on Day Two, the result may well have been different. The team are determined to make sure that one of the issues which prevented Latvala from finishing the rally among the leaders—his alternator—does not occur again. Consequently, on Monday—the day after the rally finished—the team took the problem parts to their supplier and began working on countermeasures. The TOYOTA GAZOO Racing World Rally Team will focus on further improving the Yaris WRC; its goal is to enable its drivers to drive to the best of their ability at all times, without being hindered by mechanical issues.

    Pos Driver Co-Driver Vehicle Time
    1 Sebastien Ogier Julien Ingrassia Citroën C3 WRC 3h37m08.0s
    2 Ott Tänak Martin Järveoja Toyota Yaris WRC +30.2s
    3 Elfyn Evans Scott Martin Ford Fiesta WRC +49.9s
    4 Thierry Neuville Nicolas Gilsoul Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC +1m27.0s
    5 Kris Meeke Seb Marshall Toyota Yaris WRC +6m06.2s
    6 Benito Guerra Jaime Zapata Skoda Fabia R5 +15m35.5s
    7 Marco Bulacia Wilkinson Fabian Cretu Skoda Fabia R5 +18m51.5s
    8 Jari-Matti Latvala Miikka Anttila Toyota Yaris WRC +18m55.9s
    9 Dani Sordo Carlos del Barrio Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC +22m44.1s
    10 Ricardo Trivino Marc Marti Skoda Fabia R5 +30m13.8s