Kris Meeke stamped his authority on 53. RallyRACC Catalunya – Costa Daurada 2017 in emphatic fashion on the third and final day of the event, winning all but one stage on his way to a commanding victory, a full 28 seconds ahead of championship leader Sebastian Ogier. It was an impressive performance from the Irishman and one which he most certainly needed – at a swoop he silenced parc ferme mutterings about his ability to handle pressure, and also demonstrated that the Citroen C3 has the potential to win on sealed surfaces.
Meeke held a 13 second lead going into the L’Albiol, a short 6.28km blast in the hills to the East of Salou, and emerged having extended it to 14.7. It was a sign of things to come, and also proof positive that Meeke had managed to find the C3’s oh-so illusive sweet spot – and boy did he make full use of it! The Northern Irishman won all but one of Sunday’s 6 stages and ended the day with a commanding lead, and all while looking visibly quicker than his nearest opposition.
Sebastian Ogier’s need (and indeed desire) to press home the attack on Meeke all but evaporated on the first run through Santa Marina, when title rival Thierry Neuville hit a rock and retired from the event. His nearest challenge therefore came from team mate Ott Tanak, though the Estonian’s form was somewhat blunted by having been forced to run a gravel spec gearbox filled with ratios wholly unsuited to Sunday’s lightening quick tarmac stages. Tanak wound up a comfortable third overall, just 5 seconds behind the M-Sport team leader.
Neuville’s Sunday morning retirement capped what must rank as one of Hyundai’s most painful weekends in world rallying to date, with all three of its drivers loosing arguments with the Catalan scenery at various points. The only crumb of comfort was Dani Sordo’s time through the second run through Santa Marina, the powerstage. He crossed the line with a time of 8:07.8, 3.5 seconds faster than next placed man Meeke and was therefore able to take the full crop of bonus points, though nowhere near enough to keep Hyundai’s constructors’ title hopes afloat.
The sudden departure of all 3 Hyundai i20s between Saturday afternoon and late Sunday morning meant a number of drivers found themselves promoted up the leaderboard, with Toyota’s Juho Hänninen one of the main beneficiaries. The Finn had shown considerable pace long before this unexpected windfall however, claiming a pair of stage wins on Friday and then, perhaps more surprisingly, proving able to stay with the likes of Sordo, Ogier and Tanak on Saturday and Sunday’s sealed surface tests. Hänninen became the sole surviving Yaris WRC when Esapekka Lappi crashed on Sunday.
Mads Ostberg was another driver to benefit from Hyundai’s woes; he ultimately ended Sunday in fifth place (albeit 1:32 seconds behind Hänninen), and will no doubt have been encouraged by his raw speed on Friday’s gravel.
The final 2017 spec WRCs still running at the end of Sunday belonged to Stephane Lefebvre and Elfyn Evans, both struggling with their setup respective issues. The former had to endure a litany of hydraulic issues which sapped his confidence, while the Welshman’s DMACK tyres proved ill suited for all of Spain’s stages and robbed him of a chance to compete, and he concluded the rally a massive 4:37.4 off the leader.
WRC2’s battle between Teemu Suninen and Jan Kopecky became slightly tighter as the rally progressed and the Finn’s imperious gravel form faded. M-Sport’s rising star still won and won handily (by 31.8 seconds), and the various maladies which befell Toyota and Hyundai meant that Suninen and Kopecky finished in eighth and ninth respectively. The top 10 was completed by the Skoda Fabia R5 of Christian Ole Veiby.
Nils Solans was able to cruise through Sunday’s stages safe in the knowledge that he’d already done enough to vanquish Nicholas Ciamin’s charge, and he can now look forward to a season of competition behind the wheel of an M-Sport run R5 Fiesta. The Catalan driver won the JWRC title in some style, taking the win in front of his (incredibly vocal) home crowd!
1) Kris Meeke – Citroen C3 WRC – 3:01:21.1
2) Sebastian Ogier – Ford Fiesta WRC – 3:01:49.1
3) Ott Tanak – Ford Fiesta WRC – 3:01:54.1
4) Juho Hänninen – Toyota Yaris WRC – 3:02:15.2
5) Mads Ostberg – Ford Fiesta WRC –3:03:47.3
6) Stephane Lefebvre – Citroen C3 WRC – 3:04:04.1
7) Elfyn Evans – Ford Fiesta WRC – 3:05:58.5
8) Teemu Suninen – Ford Fiesta R5 – 3:09:43.8
9) Jan Kopecky – Skoda Fabia R5 – 3:10:15.6
10) Christian Ole Veiby – Skoda Fabia R5 – 3:10:25.9