Rally de Espana 2017 is finally upon us, and the penultimate European round of the 2017 FIA World Rally Championship season promises to serve up its now customary mix of gravel and tarmac stages. The last few years have seen this event spring a number of surprises (remember Ogier’s last day smash in 2015?), many of them related to the changing conditions and the need for crews to alter their driving style accordingly. This means that Shakedown, always a significant aspect of any WRC event, becomes of crucial importance, as it permits the drivers an opportunity to get to grips with the challenging roads surrounding this area of Eastern Spain.
The Shakedown route itself is located just north of the rally’s official base of Salou, with easy access to the service park in Portaventura. The stage itself is a typical mix of gravel and asphalt and clocks in at just 2.97km in length, a brief taste of some of the far longer, far faster and far more grueling tests to come.
The session saw the reigning World Rally Champion in fine form, Sébastien Ogier evidently having found the 2017 Fiesta WRC’s ‘sweet spot’ and taking full advantage of it. His first run through the stage was a none too special 2:10.0, though the Frenchman quickly settled into the stage and the event, hacking a full 5 seconds off his time to record a scintillating 2:05.2, a time that proved impossible for the other crews to match.
Next up, and you can almost hear the sighs of relief from Versailles, came Kris Meeke. The Northern Irishman has long had a canny knack for hitting the ground running and setting suitably rapid shakedown times, though whether he’ll be able to maintain his pace in the recalcitrant C3 WRC is open for debate. His fastest time was 2:05.6.
For a time Dani Sordo looked like being the ‘best of the rest’ and the fastest Hyundai (and his spectacularly committed cornering certainly impressed the home crowd), until new signing Andreas Mikkelsen managed to pull a 2:05.9 out of the bag, bumping the Spaniard down the order. Sordo and Ott Tänak‘s fastest shakedown times were identical, 2:06.3, a stat which rather underlines just how closely fought Rally Spain will be and how little margin for error there is.
Jari-Matti Latvala was the fastest Toyota driver on Thursday morning, a fraction of a second behind the squabbling Sordo and Tanak with a time of 2:06.9, with the Fiesta of Mads Ostberg snapping at his heels in seventh and a time of 2:0.7 dead.
It is of course very easy to read too much into shakedown times, with many drivers only truly finding their true form come Friday morning. Thierry Neuville will most certainly hope this is the case and that he can wring some added pace from the i20 as the weekend progresses, as his quickest run, a 2:07.1, was only good enough for eighth overall. He ended shakedown by recording a slower time of 2:08.4, a sign that Ogier’s biggest title rival could well be ill at ease with the setup of his car.
Juho Hänninen made steady progress to end the session in ninth thanks to a fastest time of 2:07.3, leaving Elfyn Evans to round out the top 10 with a time of 2:07.6. Both will be looking to make headway come tomorrow morning while the top 10 positions remain closely grouped together and progress is (relatively) easy to come by.
The final WRC class standings were Stephane Lefebvre, Rally Finland winner Esapekka Lappi (2:08.1 and 2:08.5 respectively) and Citroen C3 returnee Khalid Al Quassimi, the latter ending the morning with a time of 2:010.3.
In the WRC2 category, M-Sport’s Teemu Suninen, a man who made waves for all the right reasons in Finland earlier in the year, came home quickest with a time of 2:11.4, ahead of the Skoda Fabias of Jan Kopecky and Benito Guerra Jr.
Rally Spain plays host to the final of the hotly contested JWRC category, one which has seen Nils Solans net a trio of wins and a pair of second places, enough to put him 23 points clear of nearest rival Nicolas Ciamin. Solans Spanish ambitions were dealt a blow during Shakedown however, when he crossed the line fifth and last of all the JWRC entries, 16.5 seconds slower than quickest man Ciamin.
1) Sebastian Ogier – Ford Fiesta WRC – 2:05.2
2) Kris Meeke – Citroen C3 WRC – 2:05.5
3) Andreas Mikkelsen – Hyundai i20 WRC – 2:05.9
4) Dani Sordo – Hyundai i20 WRC – 2:06.3
5) Ott Tanak – Ford Fiesta WRC – 2:06.3
6) Jari-Matt Latvala – Toyota Yaris WRC – 2:06.9
7) Mads Ostberg – Ford Fiesta WRC – 2:07.0
8) Thierry Neuville – Hyundai i20 WRC – 2:07.1
9) Juho Hanninen – Toyota Yaris WRC – 2:07.3
10 Elfyn Evans – Ford Fiesta WRC – 2:07.6
11) Stephane Lefebvre – Citroen C3 WRC – 2:08.1
12) Esapekka Lappi – Toytota Yaris WRC – 2:08.5
13) Khalid Al Quassimi – Citroen C3 WRC – 2:10.3