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After the cold war, rally battle set to heat up in Mexico

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Paris (AFP)

The World Rally Championship gets down to earth and hits the heights this week for the third leg of the season in Mexico.

After two wintry rounds in Monte Carlo and Sweden, Rally Mexico, from Thursday to Sunday, brings a change of surface, a change of weather and a change of altitude.

The race, around the city of Leon in Guanajuato state in the mountains of central Mexico, is the highest of the season, finishing at 2,727 metres (8,947 feet).

After icy snowy tarmac and forest roads in the first two legs, this is the first rally of the season on true gravel.

Welshman Elfyn Evans is the driver in form after finishing third in Monte Carlo and winning in Sweden.

"I'm looking forward now to the first gravel event of the season," said Evans.

Temperatures of around 30 degrees celsius and the thin air put a strain on the drivers, the cars and the mechanics.

"The heat and altitude make Mexico a very specific event," said defending world champion Ott Tanak. "Physically, it can be tough."

"At altitude we don't have as much oxygen, so our driving style needs to be smooth and flowing, while the engine power is reduced, so we have to be efficient."

Tanak is only sixth in the standings after flying off the road in the Monte Carlo race but he quickly rediscovered his form with a second place in Sweden.

Evans and Thierry Neuville of Hyundai both have 42 points but the Welshman tops the standings and for the first time, the 31-year-old will therefore discover the handicap that brings.

"Leading the championship does mean we will be opening on the road on Friday, which will not make it easy for us," said Evans who joined Toyota in the summer.

"It's another new surface for us to get used to with a new car."

The other Toyota driver, Sebastien Ogier, a six-time world champion, made his world rally debut in Mexico and has won there five times. Only fellow Frenchman Sebastien Loeb, with six, has more victories in the race.

"It's always a great feeling every year to go to Rally Mexico," said Ogier. "I have so many good memories there: It was my first WR event back in 2008."

"I think the first feeling with the car on gravel is really good."

Ogier, who is third in standings, also switched to Toyota in the summer.

"With more mileage in the car now, I start to feel more and more comfortable," he said.

Neuville, on the other hand, has never won in Mexico.

"It has always been one of the rallies I wanted to win; I was never quite able to achieve it, but it would be nice to change that this year," the Belgian said.

Even though Mexico has been little affected by coronavirus, the organisers and local government are taking precautions.

"We have set up an epidemiological surveillance system for all drivers and teams arriving from countries where the situation is most critical," said Daniel Alberto Diaz Martinez, the Secretary of Health of the state of Guanajuato.

"Epidemiologists and health workers will be posted at the places where spectators are expected in large numbers, as well as at the base of the rally."

The rally has 24 stages covering a total of 324.85km (202 miles). It starts on Thursday evening with two short bursts through the narrow streets and old silver and gold mining tunnels of the city of Guanajuato.

There are 10 stages on Friday, starting with the famous El Chocolate and nine on Saturday before the race finishes with three stages on Sunday, the last a power stage.

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