The history of RACC Catalunya ‒ Rally de España, as known as Rally Spain, dates back to the 1910s. Originally held under the name of Volta a Catalunya (1916‒1920), it was restored in 1954 and became Rally Catalunya in 1957. At that time, cars from all over the country would gather in Barcelona to race together. Then from 1975, it was included in the European Championships, and it was not until 1991 that it became one of the WRC rallies. Although the history of the WRC Rally Spain is not very long, it has become famous for its spectators and unique courses.
Hyundai Motorsport, which still has a chance of winning the manufacturer’s championship title, really did its best. For Hyundai, strong on the tarmac course, the remaining two tarmac races were their last hope. Thierry Neuville was the winner of two recent rallies in 2019 and 2021. He led Hyundai with Ott Tänak, who has won three this season. “I think Rally de España is quite straightforward now that it is back to being a full Tarmac event,” said Neuville before the race began, “the roads are flat, wide, and smooth, and the grip level is more or less the same across all of the stages. Being quick there is about getting a good set‒up and finding a nice flow with the car – then pushing as hard as you can. The gaps are always very small, so it almost feels like you are driving on a race track, fighting for every tenth of a second.”
At his home ground, Dani Sordo took Hyundai’s third car for the fourth time in the season. In all three rallies held in Portugal, Italy, and Greece this season, he finished third on the podium and contributed to winning the team’s championship points. The Sordo will drive for the team until the final Japanese rally, but plans for next year are still uncertain. Also, with Hyundai deciding to terminate its contract with Oliver Solberg, people are wondering who will drive for Hyundai next season. If Hyundai uses only three rally cars as it is now, a more experienced driver is needed to win the championship titles.
Since Kalle Rovanperä’s win in the Drivers’ Championship in New Zealand became certain, everything looks quite smooth for Toyota; the team has also got the most points for the manufacturer’s championship. Rovanperä, Evans, Sébastien Ogier and Takamoto Katsuta are driving four GR Yaris for Toyota.
As Adrien Fourmaux returned after a long absence for M Sport Ford, Craig Breen, Gus Greensmith, Pierre‒Louis Loubet, and Jourdan Serderidis took Puma Rally 1. Breen’s co‒driver, Paul Nagle, will have his retirement race in Spain, where he made his debut 18 years ago.
On October 21, drivers start two new courses north of Salou: Els Omells ‒ Maldà and Serra de la Llena. They started the first day at the 123.5km‒long SS1‒SS8, where four stages repeat in the morning and afternoon. In particular, the Riba‒Roja stage used for SS4 and SS8 is full of hairpin corners, and racers drove in the opposite direction from last year.
Champion Rovanperä took the lead on the opening stage. The wet roads from the overnight rain made it difficult for many drivers. Things were good for Rovanperä as the cars had to struggle from the dirt from the cars at front; But Neuville’s pace was no less. After finishing second in three consecutive stages, Neuville was finally able to lead by taking first place in the notorious SS4. On the other hand, Tanak finished 4th overall in the morning because the hybrid system did not work properly in SS2; He had the same problem with the SS8, despite replacing the hybrid unit during lunch service. At the end of SS7, Sordo wasted 18 seconds on tire damage.
Ogier and Rovanperä took the afternoon stage. At the close of the first day, Ogier led the overall, followed by Rovanperä by 4.8 seconds. Neuville was 3rd overall with a 12.5‒second gap from the lead, and Tanak and Sordo were 4th and 5th. Meanwhile, the M Sport Ford was far behind Hyundai and Toyota; Loubet suffered a fire in SS4, and even the fastest‒going Breen was in 7th overall, 1 minute and 3 seconds behind the lead. Meanwhile, in WRC2, Teemu Suninen from Hyundai took the lead by 12.7 seconds from Nikolay Gryazin behind him.
On Saturday, the drivers started from Savallà and repeated three stages before ending the day on a 2.15km‒long sprint stage set on the shore near the Salou Service Park. SS15 Salou is a short one, but it is one of the many places to see because you have to drive on the city roads that are slippery due to the sand on the shore. The 24.4km‒long El Montmell, the longest stage in the rally, is the iconic stage of Catalunya. The race was held on seven 120.25km‒long stages.
It was Neuville who conquered the opening stage. But after that, Ogier marked top times on four stages in a row. Nevertheless, Neuville gradually narrowed the gap with Rovanperä in front, a 0.4‒second difference in SS14, then marked the fastest in the final stage; He eventually finished second overall. At SS11 El Montmell, Greensmith suffered an accident. His car spun in a high‒speed right corner and crashed into a guardrail, smashing its left body. The red flag appeared, and all Rally 1 racers had the same record.
At the close of Saturday, the overall lead was still Ogier. Neuville, now in second place, was behind by 20.7 seconds. Rovanperä finished third with a 1.4‒second gap with Neuville, while Tanak maintained fourth overall. 5th place Sordo, who was in front of Evans, could relax a bit with SS14 top‒time. Evans is now 14.4 seconds behind Sordo. Breen, Katsuta, Fourmaux, and Loubet ranked 7th‒10th. The WRC2 leader Suninen, 11th overall, widened the time difference with Gryazin to 49.4 seconds.
On Sunday, October 23rd, SS16‒SS19, which repeats two stages, was the last course. It was a competition between Hyundai to snatch the manufacturer’s championship and Toyota to keep it. The 15.9km‒long Riudecanyes, also a power stage, was worthy of the final round with endless tight corners, high grips, and beautiful scenery. At 7 a.m., when the sun had yet to rise, Sordo, who relied on lamp lights on the opening stage, recorded the top‒time. And with Neuville running in second place, Hyundai tried to catch up for the last time. The time difference between Ogier and Neuville, which was 20.7 seconds, narrowed down to 17.5 seconds. And Rovanperä, in third, was 1.5 seconds behind Neuville.
At SS17, which also serves as a power stage rehearsal, Neuville was the fastest. A tricky drain annoyed many drivers. Neuville took a breather as Breen lost nearly a minute and Rovanperä suffered, which only made things easier for Neuville. After 30 minutes of service, the cars entered the course again. In SS18, which was also the opening stage, Ogier marked a decisive record with a top time 1.7 seconds faster than Neuville. If nothing changes, it will be his first win since his official retirement. Neuville tried all the way to the end, but had to avoid any puncture or accident that could ruin the chance to stand on the podium.
In the final power stage of SS19, Ogier again showed off his skills by taking up to 5 additional points as top‒time. Neuville finished second overall, and Rovanperä finished third. Tanak and Sordo finished fourth and fifth, with Evans, Gatsuta, Fourmaux, Breen, and Loubet scoring points. Suninen, in the 11th, beat Yohan Rossel and Gryazin to win the WRC2 class. Speaking of the Manufacturer’s Championship, Toyota scored 503 points, and Hyundai scored 410 points; Toyota secured the manufacturer’s championship title, despite one game still remains. This is their consecutive double title, following last season.
This season, the WRC has only one remaining Rally Japan, which will be held on November 10‒13 in Nagoya. The WTCR, which was temporarily suspended, will also resume on the same weekend. Many canceled matches made the season too short, hence the Middle East rally. The season will take place in Bahrain on November 10‒12 and in Saudi Arabia on November 25‒27. BRC Hyundai is leading in both the drivers’ and the manufacturer’s championship; Besides Mikel Azcona and Norbert Michelisz, Nicky Catsburg will be the third driver as a wild card. He has been in the Hyundai i30 N TCR for the Engstler team from 2019 to 2020, and he will assist his teammates to secure the win.
By Sujin Lee, automobile critic
Excited about the 1991 establishment of the first domestic auto mania magazine 〈Car Vision〉, I sent a series of long letters there that led to an unexpected hire. After becoming an editor and the Editor‒in‒Chief for 〈Car Life〉 and 〈Car Vision〉, I have started a new career as an auto critic. My recent interests include cutting‒edge techs like electric cars, connected cars, and autonomous driving, but the ‘otaku’ in me doesn’t want internal combustion engines to disappear either.
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