It says a great deal about the passionate nature of Spanish rally fans that Rally Spain continues to be such a key fixture of the FIA World Rally Championship calendar, particularly as (and with no disrespect to Dani Sordo) the country has been without a championship challenging driver for many years now. The Spanish love rallying, love the WRC and can be relied upon to put on a good show, so it’s only fitting that they’ll bear witness to the closing stages of one of the finest title showdowns of the modern age; Ogier Vs Neuville, with Ott Tanak waiting hungrily in the wings.
An event once defined by pristine, race track smooth tarmac expanded in 2010 to become the WRC’s only mixed surface event, with Friday’s running promising smooth, flowing gravel stages not a million miles from those found on the opposite side of the world in New Zealand, a comparison made all the more obvious when it rained last year! Saturday and Sunday see Rally Spain revert to form, taking in classic tarmac rallying stages in the mountains above the town of Salou, with blisteringly fast passes that demand fearless commitment and perfect pace notes. Said tarmac manages to both smooth yet very abrasive, meaning drivers must pick when to push and when to hold back, conserving tyre life for later in the stage.
The mixed conditions don’t merely test the drivers’ ability to adapt their style to suit, they force the teams (or more specifically, their service crews) to preform minor setup miracles, swapping from gravel tyres and soft suspension on Friday evening, to larger wheels with tarmac rubber, stiff springs and firm dampers. It’s a compellingly unique spectacle and one which helps make Spain one of the WRC’s unsung heroes.
The opening day of Rally Spain will bring gravel running and uses the same set of stages as last year, all located to the West of the host town of Salou. Friday will see the crews tackle a trio of roads based around the town of Bot, a challenging mix of flowing, high gear sweepers and more technically demanding sections. This leg also sees the great and the good of the WRC tackle the daunting Terra Alta, a 38.95km stage comprising both tarmac and gravel sections. Expect road order to be a factor here, as let’s face it, no one likes playing the role of road sweeper!
The second leg of the rally sees two runs each through El Montmell, El Pont d’Armentera and Savalla, before a final blast around the centre of Salou in the evening. All 7 stages are pure asphalt and all include a smattering of technical ascents, high speed passes and a number of no-compromise, hard-on-the-brakes at the very last moment junctions. Factor in a smattering of typical Spanish hairpins with jaw-droppingly pretty backdrops, and it is clear why Saturday’s running is expected to draw in many thousands of spectators.
Another 6 all asphalt stages complete the 2017 running of Rally Spain; L’Albiol, Riudecanyes and Santa Marina. Riudecanyes contains one of Rally Spain’s most recognisable spectator sections, a wide roundabout surrounded by steep banking on either side. This natural amphitheatre has swiftly become one of the best places to watch WRC cars anywhere in the world, with many drivers opting to treat the massed spectators to some smoky doughnuts on their way through. The final stage is Santa Marina, the Power Stage and one of the fastest tests of the rally.
M-Sport World Rally Team
M-Sport sit pretty in the Constructors’ title and will hope that the stunning pace which enabled Ott Tanak to win last time out in Germany continues. The Estonian has found the form of his career in recent months, confounding expectations to win his first all tarmac WRC rally mere months from his maiden win in Italy.
While Tanak’s pace and rapidly expanding collection of silverware has enabled M-Sport to take a lead in the Constructors’ fight, it has presented Malcolm Wilson with something of a dilemma; the Estonian sits in third place in the standings with 144 points, behind Neuville with 160 and team mate Ogier with 177. Tanak will be loath to give up his best chance to fight for rallying’s ultimate prize, but will he be compelled to by Ogier’s position as team leader, not to mention M-Sport’s desire to retain the multiple WRC champ for next year? Team orders could well be on the cards before the year is out, and whether they kick-in in Spain largely depends on where the M-Sport duo find themselves after the first day or two of competition.
Ogier will fancy his chances in Spain, not least as he’s long been considered one of the fastest drivers in the world ‘on the black stuff.’ His scant lead over Neuville is far from comfy though, with his third place last time out in Germany a relatively poor reward, certainly when you realise that the Hyundai ace failed to score. He’ll be looking set the record straight in Spain.
Elfyn Evans has always shown an uncanny knack for acing tarmac special stage, a trait not shared by a great many of his fellow countrymen! 2017 has seen the man from Dolgellau put in a number of stunning drives to cement his position at the top of the sport, and Elfyn will no doubt be seeking to repeat his previous tarmac performances in Corsica.
Unless they overtake M-Sport and Ogier and win the title, Hyundai and Thierry Neuville will look back on the 2017 season as one of missed opportunities. Neuville failed to take full advantage of Ogier’s retirement in Finland, then failed to score any points of his own next time out in Germany, giving him a mountain to climb if he’s to wrest the title from Seb. The upside is that his task is fairly simple, certainly in concept; he has to win in Spain, Wales and Australia, set as many Power Stage times as possible, and hope that misfortune befalls Ogier.
The team can and will take comfort from Neuville’s speed on sealed surface events, and will no doubt hope that team mate Dani Sordo will put on a good showing in front of his home fans in order to aid Thierry’s charge up the order. The Spaniard has put together a solid if unspectacular season and needs to round it off with a flourish, as does Haydon Paddon. The news that Andreas Mikkelsen will be in Hyundai colours from now on means that both Sordo and Paddon will have to share the third car, giving both relatively limited opportunities to showcase their prowess.
Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT
While not in contention for either the Drivers or the Constructors’ title in Spain, Toyota will no doubt be looking to put in a strong performance, not least because there remain a number of question marks over the Yaris’s ability to perform on asphalt, something not helped by its all Finnish driver line-up.
Lead driver Jari-Matti Latvala could well have been closer to Messrs Tanak, Neuville and Ogier in the title race, but his season has been dogged by shocking – at times heart-wrenching – bad luck and poor reliability. Now wedged in fourth place in the standings, the most talkative Finn in world motorsport will no doubt be looking to round off the year on a high, and there can be few better ways of doing this than with a convincing result on a surface not usually associated with Scandinavian success.
Latvala will be well supported by fellow Finnish aces Juho Hanninen and Esapekka Lappi, the latter the find of the year and hot property thanks to his amazing victory in Finland a few months ago.
Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT
2017 will be viewed as the year when Citroen Racing fell to earth, hard. The 17 titles, the year off in 2016 to develop the C3, not to mention some of the finest engineers in the business, none of it has been able to fully resolve the new car’s fundamental handling deficiencies. They C3 has suffered from some genuinely alarming defects at times, not to mention poor suspension performance on the rougher events, and this has perhaps been the car and the team’s biggest issue throughout this year, forcing its drivers to push well beyond the ragged edge in order to set fastest stage times. Doing so has all too often ended in the scenery, meaning that Meeke’s solitary win in Mexico at the start of the year remains the C3’s lone trip to the top of the podium in 2017.
The team will nevertheless hope for far better in Spain; the C3 has been put through a gruelling testing programme over the last few months (including valuable input from living legend and PSA talisman Sebastian Loeb), and while its wayward rear end might prove troublesome on Friday’s gravel running, Meeke, Lefebvre and Quassimi will hope for a more competitive package come Saturday morning. Meeke goes well and sealed surfaces and Lefebvre’s sealed surface expertise helped bag him this drive, so fingers crossed that the WRC’s former masters can return to form in Spain.
Rally Spain begins with the official Shakedown on Thursday 5 October, and ends with a run through the Power Stage on Sunday 8.