Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville sealed a dominant win on Rally Spain, but second place for Elfyn Evans means the World Rally Championship title battle goes down to a final-round shootout with his Toyota teammate, Sebastien Ogier.
Neuville had started the third and final day of the all-asphalt event with a 16.4s lead over Evans after earning fastest time on nine of 13 special stages over the opening two days. But with the win virtually assured, the Belgian chose to play it safe on Sunday, easing the pace just a little in his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC and racking up three second-place finishes and a third on the final four stages and 31.63 competitive miles.
“We just have to control and keep the car in the middle of the road, because it’s important to bring home a victory for the team,” said Neuville after finishing the second stage of the day and seeing his lead over Evans increase to 20.6s — “playing it safe” being a relative term in the WRC…
But Neuville’s day wasn’t without its dramas. A starter-motor issue before the final stage — the bonus points-paying Riudecanyes 2 Power Stage — meant co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe had to push the Hyundai into life. And despite setting second-fastest time on the 10.16-mile test to complete a 24.1s victory over Evans, Neuville appeared more perturbed than elated at the finish.
“I’m relieved to be at the end,” said Neuville, whose second win of 2021 consolidates his third place in the overall points. “It was a tough weekend; we fight very hard and until nearly the end everything was perfect. Lots of stress before the last stage — really disappointed, because without that the weekend would’ve been perfect and nice, but unfortunately now it isn’t.”
With Neuville backing off, it was left to his Hyundai teammate Dani Sordo to provide the final-day fireworks. The Spaniard ended day two just 1.2s behind Ogier’s third-placed Toyota Yaris WRC, but turned it up a notch to post fastest time on all four of Sunday’s tests, including a dry-into-wet Power Stage, and grab the final podium spot by 6.8s.
“It was nice to be fighting like this with a champion like Seb,” said Sordo, whose record-equaling ninth podium on his home event was also his 50th in the WRC. “I couldn’t have pushed any more, and you can’t imagine how happy I am for myself, my co-driver (Candido Carrera) and my team.”
Sordo’s wresting of third from the seven-time and reigning WRC champ had implications for the bigger-picture title fight. Ogier had arrived in Spain with a 24-point lead over teammate Evans, but with the Welshman finishing second overall and narrowly topping Ogier in the points-paying Power Stage, it’s down to 17 points for the finale at Italy’s Monza Rally, Nov. 18-21. With a maximum 30 points up for grabs (25 for the win and five for fastest on the Power Stage), it’s game on in Italy.
“I was targeting higher here, but it just didn’t happen,” said Ogier of his Spanish weekend. “Anyway, it’s points for the championship, so hopefully we make it happen in Italy.”
With Ogier still taking a handy points buffer to Monza, Evans knows he must aim for a win in the finale, but momentum is with him, despite some mixed feelings about his Spanish performance.
“I’m pleased in one sense, but quite frustrated in another,” said Evans, who’d arrived in Spain fresh off a win in Rally Finland. “A win followed by a second here is not a bad set of results, but we’re fighting a bit of a cause here. It’s not what we really wanted, but there you go.”
Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera and M-Sport Ford’s Gus Greensmith completed the final top six in Spain. Finn Rovanpera gained valuable asphalt miles and experience, but was always a level below the pace of the leading quartet, while Greensmith recovered from a puncture to hold off Oliver Solberg’s Hyundai by 9.4s in the final reckoning.
In the WRC manufacturers’ championship, Toyota will have to hold its celebrations until Monza. Despite Hyundai’s Spanish one-three result, the Japanese marque now holds a 47-point lead, and needs only three points from the finale with a maximum of 50 available.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Eric Camilli wrapped up the win in his Citroen C3, finishing 16.5s ahead of Russian Nikolay Gryazin in a Skoda Fabia Evo.
“It was crazy, crazy at the end, with the Power Stage starting dry, but wet for the final sections,” said Frenchman Camilli. “When I saw it was rain near the finish, I put the wet (softer) setup on the car, which made it not very nice on the dry to start, but it worked out and I am very happy.”
Reigning champ Mads Ostberg’s battle to keep his title defense alive ended when he finished fourth of the drivers eligible for WRC2 points. The Norwegian was on a charge after losing a chunk of time with a day one puncture in his Citroen C3, but it wasn’t enough and the crown goes to his countryman Andreas Mikkelsen.
Ironically, Mikkelsen wasn’t competing in Spain, having decided to make Monza his seventh and final counting event, but he was spectating from the service area and could at least start the celebrations with his Toksport WRT team.
American Sean Johnston finished fifth of the WRC2-eligible drivers, some 5m30.8s behind Camilli. Nevertheless, he and co-driver Alex Kihurani had completed their mission to build miles and experience in their Sainteloc Junior Team-run Citroen C3 on their first (mostly) dry asphalt WRC round.
WRC Rally Spain, final positions after Day Three, SS17
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) 2h34m11.8s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota Yaris WRC) +24.1s
3 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +35.3s
4 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota Yaris WRC) +42.1s
5 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota Yaris WRC +1m31.8s
6 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC) +4m17.3s
7 Oliver Solberg/Craig Drew (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +4m26.7s
8 Nil Solans/Marc Marti (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)+4m34.9s
9 Eric Camilli/Maxime Vilmot (Citroen C3 – WRC2 winner) +9m49.4s
10 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Skoda Fabia Evo) +10m05.9s
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