There was huge anticipation as the new-era World Rally Cars sampled gravel for the first time in the mountains near León, and Meeke put a troubled start to the season behind him to cope best in his Citroën C3 and lead Sébastien Ogier by 20.9sec.
The itinerary was shortened after the convoy of transporters delivering rally cars back to León following last night’s curtain-raising action in Mexico City’s Zócalo square was delayed by a serious motorway accident.
The road was closed for almost six hours and the cars did not arrive back at the service park in time for this morning’s 10.00 restart. Organisers scrapped the opening two speed tests covering 75km but when the action started in late afternoon, Meeke set the pace.
A low start position ensured he enjoyed cleaner and faster roads and he won the marathon 54.90km El Chocolate stage. Despite conceding a few seconds after stalling in the following test, he eased through the final three short asphalt stages with no issues.
“I made a mistake and lost a few seconds, but I’m quite satisfied. I’m really happy that finally we can show the potential of this car, but we still have things to do,” said Meeke, who suffered a problem-filled start to the year in Monte-Carlo and Sweden.
Although air temperatures were not high by Mexican standards, overheating engines were a concern for almost every driver. Ogier drove much of El Chocolate with a warning alarm flashing in his Ford Fiesta, but he shrugged off the problem to remain well in touch.
Hyundai trio Hayden Paddon, Dani Sordo and Thierry Neuville held third, fourth and fifth in their i20 Coupes. However, all three were stricken by a severe misfire in the final kilometres.
Neuville, who earlier claimed two stage wins, lost least time and ended third, 35.8sec behind Ogier. Paddon ceded almost 1min 45sec to drop to sixth while Sordo fared worst. He dropped several minutes to slip down the order.
Juho Hänninen, leader after last night’s Mexico City stages, was fourth in a Toyota Yaris 39.9sec behind Neuville. Aside from overheating issues, the Finn could barely speak after losing his voice.
The water temperature in Ott Tänak’s Fiesta hovered at 120°C for most of El Chocolate and the Estonian dropped almost 80sec as he struggled on. He was fifth, with Paddon just a tenth of a second ahead of seventh-placed Stéphane Lefebvre.