Sebastien Ogier resisted the pressure of his Toyota Gazoo Racing colleague Kalle Rovanpera to hold a slender overnight lead after Friday’s gripping opening leg of WRC Rally Spain.
It was a case of old champion vs. new champion as Ogier — an eight-time FIA World Rally Championship title winner between 2013 and 2021 — and 22-year-old Rovanpera, who was crowned the youngest ever WRC champ in New Zealand earlier this month, traded blows across eight pulsating all-asphalt stages in the Costa Daurada hills west of Barcelona.
Starting first on the road, Rovanpera was the early pacesetter and led the way in his GR Yaris Rally1 after the first two stages. As first car out, he didn’t have to contend with dirt thrown on the road from the corner cutting that’s de rigueur if you want to be fast. But he relinquished the top spot on stage 3, Les Garrigues Altes 1, after dropping 8.2s to teammate Ogier while fighting against understeer.
Ogier has elected to run only a limited program with Toyota this season, and with only one more event after Spain, it’s very obvious that he’s hungry for a first win of 2022 — one that would extend his rally-winning streak to 10 consecutive seasons. The 38-year-old Frenchman did briefly surrender his position to Hyundai Motorsport’s Thierry Neuville just before the day’s midpoint, but emerged from the service halt in fighting mood, immediately snatching back the lead.
Coming under increasing pressure from Rovanpera in the afternoon, who claimed back-to-back stage wins on SS6 and SS7, Ogier responded in the day’s final test, edging the Finnish phenom by 1.2s to end the day 4.8s clear.
Watch Rally Spain day one highlights below:
“It’s been a good day and I’m really happy,” reflected Ogier. “I was a bit scared to be starting seventh on the road today with the amount of cuts that we had to go through, but we had a really good feeling in the car. But so far, so good. Obviously 4.8 seconds is not a lot, so we will need to keep on pushing hard tomorrow. May the best man win!”
A dejected Neuville — winner of the previous two Rally Spains — completed the overnight podium 7.7s behind Rovanpera. But the Belgian asphalt ace lacked the pace to threaten the leading pair in the afternoon and was hesitant to push too hard for fear of his nervous i20 N Rally1 sliding and losing even more time.
“We do not have the speed and, to be honest, I can’t really push to the maximum,” he explained. “The car starts to slide and it’s difficult to know where to improve.”
Neuville’s Hyundai teammate Ott Tanak ended 7.5s further down in fourth overall, ahead of Dani Sordo’s similar machine. It was a fraught day for the pair, with Tanak forced to overcome hybrid unit faults and an alternator belt failure, while local hero Sordo punctured his left-front tire on SS7.
Sordo wasn’t the only one to suffer tire drama. Elfyn Evans endured the same outcome after hitting exactly the same rock, as did the Welshman’s Toyota teammate Takamoto Katsuta. The pair arrived back to service in sixth and eighth respectively, sandwiching the leading M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 of Craig Breen, who admitted that his pace notes were way too conservative for the conditions.
Elsewhere in M-Sport world, Adrien Fourmaux made a sensible start to his first WRC entry since August and trailed Katsuta by just 2.7s at close of play, while Gus Greensmith completed the overall top 10 another 7.5s in arrears.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Teemu Suninen made a strong start to his first asphalt outing of the season and leads the class.
The Finnish driver is searching for his first WRC2 victory of the year after a star-crossed season run so far and wasted no time in demonstrating the potential of Hyundai’s i20 N Rally2 car on smooth asphalt.
After seizing the lead from Skoda Fabia Evo driver Nikolay Gryazin on the final stage before service, Suninen was never headed and remained in control despite patches of damp weather in the afternoon.
Gryazin managed to whittle the deficit down to 1.8s with two stages remaining, but Suninen reacted — going 11.9s quicker than his rival on the penultimate, 14.07-mile Les Garrigues Altes stage to arrive back to service 12.7s in front and 12th in the overall rally standings.
It was a troublesome day for WRC2 title contenders Emil Lindholm and Kajetan Kajetanowicz. Both drivers suffered costly spins in their Skodas and languish more than a minute back from the class lead in sixth and seventh. As it stands, the title will be decided at the season finale in Japan.
Crews are familiar with Saturday’s second leg route. The unchanged Savalla (8.66 miles) and the longest stage of the rally at El Montmell (15.02 miles) sandwich Querol-Les Pobles (12.55 miles), which opens with a new 2-mile section.
Service at Salou’s PortAventura World theme park separates morning and afternoon runs over the same roads before the day ends with the popular 1.34-mile street stage along Salou seafront. The seven stages add up to 73.89 competitive miles of flat-out competition.
WRC Rally Spain, leading positions after Day One, SS8
1 Sebastien Ogier/Benjamin Veillas (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 1h06m07.9s
2 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +4.8s
3 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +12.5s
4 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +20.0s
5 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +50.9s
6 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m01.2s
7 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m03.7s
8 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m28.6s
9 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m31.3s
10 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m38.8s
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