The history books will show that Kris Meeke won Rally de Espana and won it in commanding form, but, as is often the case with motor racing, the bare stats only tell part of the story. The dry statistics and figures will never be able to convey quite how much Meeke wanted, in fact needed, this win, or the mounting sense of pent up frustration which preceded it. The man from Dungannon travelled to Catalonia knowing that he really needed a strong result in order to have any say over the direction of the team and its C3 WRC in the coming months, and also that his employer had sought out the driving services of one of his predecessors in order to further hone the car, the one only Sebastian Loeb. Pressure? What pressure!
Meeke has since admitted that his key concern going into the event was the need to stay in touch with the pace setters on the opening leg, the 6 gravel stages based to the West of Salou. The C3 WRC’s shortcomings were most obvious on loose surface events (despite Meeke’s Mexican victory at the beginning of the season) and this was therefore no easy task, even with the significant improvements made by the team over the course of the WRC’s summer break.
Meeke’s task was initially hindered through poor tyre choice – he plumped for an overly soft setup which meant that his rubber overheated and de-laminated as the day wore on. A spin on SS4 cost further time though his pace improved dramatically as the afternoon wore on (he won SS5, Bot 2), and he was able to go into Saturday just a handful of seconds down on the leading duo of Andreas Mikkelsen and Sebastian Ogier, still well within touching distance.
“We hadn’t done any testing in Spain on the asphalt so that probably gave me an extra lift and motivation on the Saturday morning. I was telling myself, ‘I’m not going to be caught cold on this surface, against these guys who’ve done their testing on Spanish tarmac. I’m going to hit the ground running.’ And fortunately for me, that turned the tide. We were able to catch a few of the other guys on the hop and pull out an advantage.”
Turn the tide he well and truly did, and from the moment his C3 barked into life on Saturday morning Meeke looked to have the edge. Quickest through El Montmell and soon at the top of the leaderboard, Meeke set about stamping his authority on the event, becoming faster and faster as the stages wore on. He won all bar one of Sunday’s stages despite his engine stuttering midway round Riudecanyes’ infamous roundabout, looking totally at home in the car at all times. It was a mighty performance and which underscored the improving nature of the C3 WRC, though Meeke was swift to point out that there was still much work to be done.
Citroen won’t be content to rest on their laurels post-Spain; Meeke might have won but team mate Stephan Lefebvre struggled to gel with the C3, coming home a distant sixth thanks to a mix of poor setup and hydraulic issues.
Those same history books will also show that Meeke’s victory ambitions were aided by a massive amount of bad luck on behalf of some of his biggest rivals, but in truth much of his work had already been done long before the Hyundais of Dani Sordo and Andreas Mikkelsen retired on Saturday. Neuville’s failure to finish means that while he’s mathematically still in contention for the title, the momentum has most defiantly swung firmly in the favour of Ogier.
He struggled to find anything like the form required to trouble the top 3 for most of the weekend, with his poor showing on Friday’s gravel (largely thanks to his decision to opt for soft tyres) being especially telling. This was followed by a rather bizarre set of issues on Saturday morning, beginning with hydraulic pressure loss and culminating in a minor spin and an ‘off’ while pushing to make up time on the road section! He leaves Spain having dropped to third in the drivers’ fight.
The retirement of Thierry Neuville capped a weekend to forget for Hyundai and one which has, barring the sensational retirement of the M-Sport Fords in both Wales and Australia, knocked them out of the constructors’ fight. Those looking for a few scant crumbs of comfort will point to Andreas Mikkelsen’s pace on Friday and overnight lead, form which confirms that the Norwegian is already at home in the team and at one with the i20. He’ll no doubt be a strong contender when the WRC pitches up in Wales later this month, but that probably won’t be enough to prevent 2017’s silverware from ending up in Dovenby Hall.
M-Sport will no doubt be very satisfied with the outcome of Rally Spain, with both Sebastian Ogier and Ott Tanak having enjoyed relatively quiet, trouble-free rallies. The Frenchman’s run through the second running of Terra Alta on Friday afternoon was particularly impressive and underscored his ability to make the most of the grip available, and all while acting as gravel plough for the cars behind. He made up as much time as possible on the stage’s scattered tarmac sections to remain in striking distance of Mikkelsen, and from then on drove in a measured manner to come home a solid second.
Ott Tanak’s hopes of troubling his team mate in the WRC title fight were probably dealt a mortal blow in Spain, yet he can’t be that disappointed in 3rd overall and promotion to second in the title rankings, not least as he achieved it despite transmission gremlins on Sunday. Strong pace on Friday saw him tussle with Ogier and confirm has position as one of the fastest men in the WRC. Malcolm Wilson will be sad to lose Ogier if the Frenchman does opt to decamp to Citroën, but that’s a blow which will no doubt be softened by Tanak’s emergence as a fully-fledged title contender.
The other pair of Fiesta WRCs endured a tougher weekend. Mads Ostberg’s initial pace faded as gravel gave way to tarmac and he ended the rally in fifth, a result made possible thanks to the high rate of attrition further up the order. Elfyn Evans grappled with his DMACK tyres and never truly seemed at home in the car, completing Sunday in a distant seventh, almost 2 minutes behind Stephan Lefebvre and 4:37 behind Meeke.
While not quite as tough as Hyundai’s weekend (mainly as it was almost impossible for it to be), Toyota also endured more than its fair share of pain in Spain. The positives were the pace of Jari-Matti Latvala and Juho Hänninen on gravel, with the latter Finn claiming fastest times in the second run through El Pont d’Armentera and Savalla. He’d go on to finish the rally in a strong fourth overall, the sole surviving Yaris WRC after the retirement of Latvala (engine issues on Friday afternoon) and Esapekka Lappi (a crash midway through SS15 on Sunday).
Rally Spain looks to have been a pivotal round of the 2017 WRC, and quite possibly the event when Neuville and Hyundai’s title hopes were dashed once and for all. There’s still much to play for though, not least as the Belgian will be desperate to retake second place from Ott Tanak, meaning all eyes will switch to Rally Wales at the end of the month.
1) Sebastian Ogier – 198
2) Ott Tanak – 161
3) Thierry Neuville – 160
4) Jari-Matti Latvala – 123
5) Dani Sordo – 94
6) Elfyn Evans – 93
7) Juho Hanninen – 71
8) Craig Breen – 64
9) Kris Meeke – 60
10) Haydon Paddon – 55
11) Esapekka Lappi – 49
12) Andreas Mikkelsen – 39
13) Stephan Lefebvre – 30
1) M-Sport – 325
2) Hyundai Motorsport – 261
3) Toyota Gazoo Racing – 213
4) Citroen Abu Dhabi WRT – 163