Hyundai driver Thierry Neuville came within 1.2 seconds of sweeping day two of WRC Rally Spain, and heads into Sunday’s third and final day with a 16.4s lead over his nearest challenger, Toyota’s Elfyn Evans.
Asphalt ace Neuville set outright fastest time on five of Saturday’s seven special stages, including the first four tests of the day, and set equal fastest time with Toyota driver Sebastien Ogier on a sixth.
And those sweep-stopping 1.2 seconds? That’s the margin by which Ogier managed to edge the flying Belgian on the day’s penultimate test, the 15.16-mile El Montmell 2 stage.
With Spain’s FIA World Rally Championship round switching to an all-asphalt format for 2021, Neuville had been expected to be a major factor. He’d won the event in 2019 (when the opening day was still run on gravel) and had finished yesterday’s first leg with a scant 0.7s lead over Evans.
And with Neuville fighting understeer in his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC, plus the gravel thrown up by cars cutting corners for the fastest line keeping him from pushing to his limit, the battle for the lead was expected to remain a tight one heading into day two.
But in reality, bar Ogier’s late-afternoon charge, nobody could come close to Neuville. Fastest on each of the morning’s three stages, Neuville began the afternoon in similar style, and noted that it was only his own circumspection that slowed the assault.
“I was a little wary of some of the cuts on that second run through El Montmell, so I backed off just a little,” said Neuville, who hadn’t completely cured his understeer issues coming into day two, but now had a car he could do business with.
“The car is a little bit better today — let’s say it’s a step closer to being perfect,” he added. “And when everything’s going the right way, it’s just a pleasure to drive these stages. But it still hasn’t been an easy day. We had fog this morning and the roads are still very dirty in places. But overall, a good day.”
For Evans and Ogier, there’s a bigger picture to consider this weekend. Ogier currently heads Evans by 24 points in the WRC standings with just one round remaining after this weekend’s event, Italy’s asphalt/gravel Rally Monza. With a maximum 30 points on offer in Spain (25 for the victory, and five bonus points for winning the rally-ending Power Stage), seven-time and reigning champ Ogier can clinch his eighth WRC crown if he outscores his Toyota teammate by seven points.
But with Evans heading into Sunday’s four special stages and 31.63 competitive miles with a 22.3s lead over third-placed Ogier, it’s looking more likely that the points gap will come down and the pair will go head to head for the title in Monza.
“I’m not really focused on the points at the moment,” said Welshman Evans, who struggled with his Yaris WRC on day two in Spain. “I wasn’t comfortable with the car this morning and it was a bit worse this afternoon. We’d changed a few things and lost the balance of the car. So, honestly, I’m not looking at where we are relative to Thierry or Seb; I’m just trying to focus on being a bit better.”
In contrast, after never getting to grips with his Yaris on day one, Ogier had tweaked and changed setups until it was finally giving him the confidence to start to push in Saturday’s afternoon loop. But while it had allowed him to stave off an attack from local hero Dani Sordo’s Hyundai, the pressure was back on when the Frenchman’s Toyota stalled on the final test, a 1.29-mile thrash around host town Salou’s beachfront, leaving him just 1.2s clear of the Spaniard.
“Yeah, that was a shame,” said Ogier. “I’ve no idea why it stalled, but apart from that I had a great afternoon. I’ve never spent so long changing a car during a rally, but at least now it’s better and the pace is there, so I’m confident for tomorrow.”
Added Sordo: “He’s a little bit more quick this afternoon. He’s starting to have a Sebastien Ogier mood again, but it’s got close again, so we’ll try to push him tomorrow, even though he’s really strong.”
Behind the top four, Kalle Rovanpera continues to hold fifth and gain asphalt miles and experience in the third of the factory Toyotas. The Finn is more than two and a half minutes ahead of an unexpectedly tight battle for sixth between M-Sport Ford’s Gus Greensmith and, just 0.7s behind, Oliver Solberg on his first asphalt outing in a full-spec WRC Hyundai. Solberg had held the advantage until the final stage, but dropped almost 30s with a clutch problem.
That sixth spot had been M-Sport Ford driver Adrien Fourmaux’s until the Frenchman, who’d shown excellent pace through the morning loop, hit a barrier on the day’s fifth stage, breaking a driveshaft and damaging his steering and left-front suspension. Running repairs in the following road section got him to the day’s finish, but well out of the points-scoring positions in 20th overall.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Frenchman Eric Camilli continues to lead in his Citroen C3, 9.7s ahead of Russian Nikolay Gryazin in a Skoda Fabia.
Reigning champ Mads Ostberg, who dropped a massive chunk of time with a day one puncture in his Citroen C3, pushed hard to fight back through the field and keep his tenuous title chances alive. Highlight for the Norwegian was fourth fastest time overall on the day’s final stage, beating the likes of Rovanpera and Greensmith from the headlining class, but he would finish the day only fourth of the drivers eligible for WRC2 points.
American Sean Johnston currently sits fifth of the WRC2-eligible drivers, he and co-driver Alex Kihurani continuing to build miles and experience in their Sainteloc Junior Team-run Citroen C3 on their first all-dry asphalt WRC round.
Sunday’s four stages start with a pre-sunrise run through the 5.65-mile Santa Marina 1 test and conclude with the 10.16-mile Riudecanyes 2 test as the bonus points-scoring Power Stage.
WRC Rally Spain, leading positions after Day Two, SS11
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) 2h03m45.7s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota Yaris WRC) +16.4
3 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota Yaris WRC) +38.7s
4 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +39.9s
5 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m12.3s
6 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC) +3m45.2s
7 Oliver Solberg/Craig Drew (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +3m45.9s
8 Nil Solans/Marc Marti (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +3m53.8s
9 Eric Camilli/Maxime Vilmot (Citroen C3 – WRC2 leader) +7m52.8s
10 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Skoda Fabia Evo) +8m02.5s
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