Facing Challenges: WRC Mexico Rally

With the first day of real rally racing ahead, the team was up early and ready to send Rob and Ben off to the first Alfaro stage, a 26km (15.6 miles) of wide and sweeping turns on a fairly good gravelly surface which gets tighter and more twisty in the last 5km. . In rally racing, for the most part, there are pre-set times when the team can service the vehicle. So at the end of each day all vehicles are parked in an area called Park Ferme. A secure parking lot watched by WRC officials. Entering Park Ferme any time other than when when the vehicle is brought in, or when it’s scheduled to exit.

Friday morning marks the first service during the three day race: 15 minutes. Team Darkcyd had a few simple goals. Fifteen minutes doesn’t leave much time for anything. However, the team had the car for nearly two days before the start of the race. First, they needed to change the tires from those used on the short 1.5km tarmac Ceremonial Stage to newer tires better suited to the rocky and gravel surfaces for Friday. Adjustments were made to the in cockpit camera system and overall inspection of the vehicle.

When the WRC officals came by our pit, we reviewed the results of the cermonnial stage the night before. Good news: our team was not penalized for an early start. Phew!

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Ken Anctil changes tires and Gary Grahn inspects the engine compartment.

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The starting line for the Alfaro Stage at WRC Rally Mexico 2011.

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Spectators try to find safe viewing areas, but the craggy terrain challenges them.

WRC Rally Mexico 2011 is essentially made up of 2 different groups—not exactly classes, because in each group there are several vehicle classes. There are the WRC professionals, which, for 2011, included 24 vehicles in 4 different classes and the Rally America group which included 10 vehicles from both the United States and Mexico.

While there are a huge number of differences between the two groups, the most interesting is how the starting order is set. With WRC, the fastest cars go first in ascending order, based on the run time from the previous stage. With Rally America cars, the cars start in descending order with the fastest cars starting last. Plus, the Rally America group is split by those entrants from North America and those from Mexico.

The racing takes part in stages, and each stage is set either in the surrounding hills of León or in the city limits. Because this is Mexico, Tara and I decided it would be best to find a local race fan who could guide us to the stages to makes sure that we found them and got there before the stage starts.

José Fredo (Fredo), thin, handsome and with salt and pepper hair in his late 50’s, is a bit of a renaissance man. He’s written several books including one on the history of the La Carrera Panamicana, the Pan Am—now infamous, but only run for 5 years between 1950 and 1954. José Fredo speaks several languages, including French, Italian and English. For us unfortunately, he is less literate in English. No problem, I am able to speak to him in Spanish and translate as needed.

Also joining us for the day was Lonnie Watson, the father of two young boys from another Rally America team, Recon Rally Team USA. Armed with a video camera and a bag of gear, Lonnie didn’t want to miss an opportunity to see his boys race their first international rally in their VW Rabbit. Driver Brian Watson and one of his mechanics drove three days straight from Seattle, without stopping, sleeping and switching drivers along the way.

By the time we got near start of the race, WRC officials and local police had closed the race to the starting line. Because we’re driving the same vehicle that Robb and Ben used to do the “recce” on the stages, we had a large official sticker adhered to the passenger side of the windshield. Plus, we were sporting lanyards with official “back stage” passes allowing us access to places others could not go.

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José Fredo, our guide; Lonny Watson and Tara Rill haning in the heat waiting for Darkcyd Racing’s inaugural run at 2011 WRC Rally Mexico.

With some 65,000 miles of international driving experience, I know how to quickly adapt to the local driving style. And in Mexico, it may as well as be rally racing. Yet, when Fredo instructed me to keep driving past two police officers on a dusty gravel road, I hesitate. “Go. Go. Go, Allan,” he yelled as I rolled down the window to talk to one of the officers.

“No talk, Allan,” he’s saying while tapping my shoulder from the back seat. I say good bye to the officer and slowly pull forward. The officer puts his hand on his holster and unfastens the button holding his gun. Hmmmm. Maybe we should stay. I would learn later that Fredo can easily talk his way nearly anywhere. He seems to know everyone working the rally, and that combined with our credentials would later serve us well and save many miles of tough high-altitude climbing.

However here at the Alfaro 1 stage, we had to hike up a rocky road, often instructed to walk on the other side of yellow and red tape that delineated the course and its pedestrian danger zones. Climbing through sandy, thorny and craggy terrain of the Sierra de Lobos mountains we positioned ourselves just outside the first turn and waited. Helicopters hovered about, and soon a WRC truck flew by with sirens and lights spewing dust over the spectators gathered to watch the race. Race officials, worried about pedestrian safety, cleared the area on the outside of the left-hand sweeping turn.

When seven-time and current world champion Sébastien Loeb, took that first turn I got my first taste of WRC Rally Racing, as well as an eyeful of the dust that trailed him as he blasted through the curve going side ways and then powered up the straight away from us. Wow. Loeb, who turned 37 years old just a few days before the start of “recce” here in Mexico, as well as his teamate Sébastien Olgier are French and drive French-made Citroen DS3 WRC vehicles with 1.6 litre turbocharged engines.

While dusty and hot as the morning sun grew hotter, I was energized by the adrenaline of a motorsport I’d long knew about and briefly tasted in 2004 when I happened to be in Monoco during the WRC Monte-Carlo Rally. The speed at which these cars travel over roads that twist, turn, climb, descend, switchback and pass through remote villages and desolate landscapes is impressive. And with three days of nonstop driving in 90+ degree temperatures tests the endurance, focus and abilities of both man and machine—cars, drivers, co-drivers and teams.

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Sébastien Loeb tears up the first turn in WRC Rally Mexico 2011.

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Nassar al-Attiyah dusts the crowd as he aims to place in this years Rally Mexico.

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Norwegian Petter Solberg grinds the dirt coming out of turn 1 at the Alfaro stage at WRC Rally Mexico 2011.

In Rally Racing the strategy isn’t simply to have the fastest time. Because the dangerous terrain, extreme temperatures and constant acceleration, braking and shifting, to win a rally like this is to finish. Finishing faster and on time is certainly the goal, but one mustn’t lose sight that if a driver or car is pushed to or even beyond its limits the likelihood of mistakes increases exponetially. While this kind of racing is always as risk, the best drivers know how to keep that risk in check and do what’s needed to survive the grueling days of racing.

With the WRC drivers powering through and then the Mexican representatives of the Rally America, it’s clear why the professional WRC racers are the top in the world, because even the slowest of the cars are driving much faster than most people reading this blog will ever drive on these kind of roads.

The danger in rally racing isn’t always confined to those in the cockpit of the cars, it’s the pedestrians who, after watching the pros and not aware of the time gap between groups, start walking, riding their bicycles or walking their dogs down the dusty track. Fortunately, the other spectators are quick to scream, yell and often make fun, all in an effort to clear the road for the drivers and the safety of the people. Though, due to the ignorance or stupidity of some, accidents do happen.

When Robb and Ben, the last of 34 cars, came careening through the corner we cheered and watched him face into the dust trail he left behind the Darkcyd Racing Team’s ’05 Subaru. The start of a long weekend of racing.

Tara, Lonnie and I headed back to the Poliforum, where the pits and the afternoon León street stage, Super Special, would be run later this afternoon. Due to the distances between stages, and the rough roads required to get there, we decided best not to try to make it before the street stage and the next pit stop, an official 30 minute service just after the street stage.

The short Street Stage is 1.5km and winds around the León Explora Science Center, an interactive and museum and park, which sits just behind the pit and service area. The entire stage is on asphalt with several flat out corners then turning into a rapid succession of haiprins and 90 degree turns. While watching the pros at speed then slam on the brakes as they wind through the hairpins and corners, I receive a text message from Robb. It’s urgent. The power steering and alternator belt has snapped. I get word to the team and though we didn’t have a spare, they find one in record time. Soon after, the car lost power and they had to summon a passing car on the street who was happy to help Robb out with a battery. Problem is, now Robb must ride through this winding, twisting, albeit short, stage without power steering. To be sure, not all race cars have power steering. But when fitted with such, losing power steering actually makes turning harder than if the car never had it fitted. Plus, since the Subaru is four-wheel drive, powering it through these types of corners is tough. Plus, with the old battery in the rear of the cockpit, it will roll around and make for an uncomfortable stage.

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Recon Rally and Rally Team for Dreams launch their bid at the 2011 WRC Rally Mexico under the Rally America group.

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Rally racing brings out fans of all ages. I enjoyed talking with the kids who found balance watching the race from a fence nearby.

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Robb Rill pulls out of turn one and guns it around the corner on the first day of racing in the dirt at WRC Rally Mexico.

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Spectators sometimes make no sense. With many more cars to run, they risk getting gunned down by a speeding rally car. But the kids still hang and wait for the next competitor.

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Running the Alfaro Stage, Robb Rill and co-driver Ben Slocum compete in 90+ degree temperatures.

Yet watching Robb take the corners as I snapped dozens of photos, I wouldn’t have guessed he was tasked with these challenges. After winding through the stage, the Subaru battery fails and the car has to be pushed through the Poliforum, past all the pit areas for the professionals. When it finally arrives in the pit for service, co-driver Ben Slocum nearly collapses from heat exhaustion. The team moves to recharge the battery, replace the broken belt and check the car for damage and potential problems. As Ben regains composure and is hydrated he goes back into form.

We learn that the Recon Rally team piloted by Lonnie’s sons has fallen out of the race. They’ve blown an engine. Another Rally America car in a Dodge Neon ran into a tree. And Bill Caswell, the 2010 Rally America winner at WRC Mexico suffered mechanical problems and would be towed back to the pits. Still another, one of the Mexican cars, rolled and would show up later on a flatbed. Fortunately, nobody is hurt. But that takes the pack down to six cars.

“Three minutes,” he yells while telling me that I shouldn’t bother Robb with another interview, they must focus and get suited and in the car. Ed and Kenny recheck the torque on all the lug nuts while Ken and Gary examine brake and fuel lines.

“Thirty seconds,” Ben’s voice louder and with conviction and authority of a football coach. They fire the engine and back out of the tent.

But there’s a problem.

The car doesn’t move smoothly and sparks are flying out of the wheels as Robb back and then pulls the car back into the tent. He tries again. It’s seized. More sparks. The team jacks the car up and pulls the wheels off. Now they’re going to be penalized. Taking more time in service will cost us time. But the car can’t go. Gary discovers the brake calipers are seized. With some hammering, WD-40 and a little bit of luck they get them released. But will they last?

After Ben and Robb blast out of the pit, the team moves to solve the problem. After a team meeting and many phone calls it’s impossible to get new brake calipers and pads because those fitted on the Subaru are specially designed aftermarket products that are not sold in Mexico. Contacting the US supplier yields the answer I already know: it will take at least 4 or 5 days to get parts shipped due to customs holds. Alternatively, the team could replace the entire brake system with original stock parts, but finding these in Mexico in time is impossible. We try to convince a Mexican team who’s bad luck that day took them out of the race. But they’re convinced they can fix the car and get back in the race after many repairs. Our team doesn’t think so. But there’s no convincing them.

An hour later I receive another update from Robb and Ben. They say the next stage has been cancelled due to a “red cross” situation. We imagine the worst: someone badly injured, or even killed. Some time later they roll the Subaru into Park Ferme. The brakes worked for the transit to the beginning of the stage, but since they never got to run the stage, which is a second stab at the first stage of the day, there’s no way of knowing how the brakes will perform under stress of racing.

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Though the street stage is 100% pavement, the WRC brought in a little dirt to add some excitement.

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Thousands of people come to watch Rally Mexico, sponsors like Coca-Cola and Corona do its best to capture their attention and make and impression.

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Then again, Monster energy drinks perhaps makes an even better impression with the only American driver in the WRC pro class, DC shoe founder, Ken Block. Though his Ford is plagued with electrical issues throughout the race.

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Robb Rill of Darkcyd Racing challenged with a broken power steering belt and a loose battery bouncing around the cockpit, but still scores good time on the WRC Rally Mexico Street Stage.

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The battery dies after the street stage, so the team and more have to push Darkcyd’s Subaru through the Poliforum pro pit area and out to the Darkcyd service area.

Turns out that the next three stages are cancelled. Not because anyone got hurt. But because of the attrition of cars falling out of the race, the gap between cars has expanded. You see, officials must wait for the official start time for all cars who started the day at first stage. However, with four cars out of the race the space between the last car to actually run and the time Robb is scheduled to start is too big. Fans, thinking the stage is over, start walking down the track. The danger and risk is too high. To avoid an accident and focus on safety, they won’t let Robb run.

Since Robb was the fastest, he goes last. Perhaps it’s a blessing given the brake situation, but it still means not completing the stage. Though Robb and Ben ran the same three stages in the morning, there’s a bit of disappointment in the air. As far as scoring, the team will still be saddled with the service delay penalty, but race rules dictate that we will be assigned a time equal to the slowest time of the last car to complete the stage. Ben assures Robb and the team that this is fair and normal.

The last stage of the day is called Super Special 1 and Super Special 2. It’s a paved tracked at a racing track and complex outside the city of León. At 2.2km, two drivers compete and race at the same time. They race the course twice. This is perhaps draws the densest crowd of the rally because it’s close to town, offers spectator viewing from bleachers and has a number of high speed sections, twists and turns and two jumps. The good news is that the team has another 45 minute service which gives them time to look at the brakes. The car should be fitted with a light bar that contains four high-intensity halogen beams, but there are problems hooking it up due to damage to the undercarriage where the light bar should be bolted. Robb must run without lights.

Even with questionable brakes, Robb pilots the Subaru to second place, just 2.5 seconds behind Guillermo Sánchez and his Mitsubishi Lancer.

Back at the pits the team tries to solve the brake issue. Robb remembers that Petter Solberg used a Subaru during the Recce stage and so did Nassar al-Attiyah, the 2011 Dakar winner. But so late and with no real connection to these teams, we can’t find anyone willing to listen to our plight.

The team heads to bed exhausted, if not a bit dejected. But tomorrow is another day. This is rally racing and in many ways, to win is to finish.

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Tara makes sure security is on top of their job while Gary tries to fit the light bar for the Super Special nighttime stage.

We’ve set our strategy. You never know, tthings change by the stage.

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