Belgian Thierry Neuville is targeting a third consecutive WRC Rally Spain win this weekend — one that could just keep Hyundai’s slim manufacturers’ title hopes alive.
The battle for the makes’ crown in the 2022 FIA World Rally Championship reaches a potentially decisive point in Spain’s Costa Daurada hills as just two factory squads remain in contention for the title.
Toyota Gazoo Racing can seal its second manufacturers’ championship in as many years at the WRC’s penultimate stop. The only team able to prevent that from happening is Hyundai Motorsport, which trails the reigning champs by 81 points.
With such an advantage, a trouble-free outing for Toyota should be sufficient to get the job done. But Hyundai has an ace up its sleeve in the form of Neuville.
On Rally Spain’s last two runnings, in 2019 and ’21, Neuville was the man to beat on the smooth asphalt roads in the coastal hills south of Barcelona. Going three in a row would be a big boost for his Korean manufacturer squad.
Watch a preview video of Rally Spain below:
“It would be nice to take a third win in a row in Spain,” said Neuville. “We’ll certainly be aiming to fight at the front and finish the event on the podium again.
“Being quick here is all about getting a good setup and finding a nice flow with the car — then pushing as hard as you can. We’ll try our best to secure a good result for the team.”
Neuville is joined by i20 N Rally1 factory teammates Ott Tanak and home hero Dani Sordo. The Spaniard is running a limited program with Hyundai, but has finished on the podium in the last five WRC rallies he’s contested.
Toyota’s charge is led by 22-year-old Kalle Rovanpera, who became the youngest WRC champion in history at Rally New Zealand earlier this month.
The Finn and teammates Sebastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans are the drivers charged with keeping Hyundai at bay, while Takamoto Katsuta drives a fourth GR Yaris Rally1 under Toyota’s Next Generation banner.
In Thursday’s Shakedown, Toyota had the upper hand. The Yaris fleet posted four of the five fastest times on the pre-event test stage, with Ogier edging Katsuta by 0.9s on the 2.62-mile layout. In contrast, Hyundai’s Tanal, Sordo and Neuville were only 11th, 13th and 14th respectively, more than 10s off the pace thanks to wet conditions and tire compound choices rendering meaningful running something of a lottery. Still, with the possibility of rain on Friday’s first leg, Toyota has the upper hand psychologically…
Watch highlights of the Rally Spain shakedown below:
M-Sport Ford fields a five-car Puma Rally1 lineup. Team leader Craig Breen will be looking to give co-driver Paul Nagle a strong send-off on his final WRC rally, while Gus Greensmith and the French duo of Adrien Fourmaux and Pierre-Louis Loubet will also be looking to snap M-Sport’s six-rally podium drought after a season that’s promised way more than it ultimately delivered. Loubet is the man with the momentum, relatively speaking, having finished fourth on his last start, Acropolis Rally Greece.
Greek privateer Jourdan Serderidis drives the fifth Puma, and will be hoping that attrition could see him earning another top-10 finish to go with his seventh place on June’s Safari Rally Kenya.
Rally Spain could prove pivotal in the race for the WRC2 title. With two events remaining, only three drivers are still in with a chance of glory within the WRC’s premier support category.
Defending WRC2 champ Andreas Mikkelsen, who currently heads the standings, is not even on the start line in Salou. The Norwegian has already started seven rallies, the maximum allowed in the series, and can only watch to see how his competition fares.
All eyes this weekend will be on Skoda Fabia Evo rivals Kajetan Kajetanowicz and Emil Lindholm, who are split by just seven points in second and third places respectively.
On paper, it’s Kajetanowicz who holds the upper hand. He only requires 14 points in Spain to rule Mikkelsen out of the title battle and could, theoretically at least, take the title at this rally. But for that to happen, the Pole would be reliant on Lindholm scoring very poorly — something the Finn doesn’t intend to do after winning the WRC3 class on last year’s Rally Spain.
After Thursday evening’s start ceremony in the coastal resort of Salou, the serious Rally Spain action begins on Friday morning.
After many years as the WRC’s only mixed-surface encounter, the event switched to an all-asphalt format in 2021. Fast, smooth, racetrack-like asphalt in the Costa Daurada hills down the coast from Barcelona encourages attacking driving, and judicious corner-cutting saves vital tenths. Competitors face 19 special stages and a total of 182.54 competitive miles before Sunday afternoon’s finish in Salou.
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