The penultimate round of the 2021 World Rally Championship and it is all to play for, the all tarmac Spanish Rally was set to be an exciting event, as Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT chase the manufacturers and driver’s crown while Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT will go all out to challenge for the manufacturers title. A tall order but a case of never say die, all the right ingredients for a great rally.
It was Sebastien Ogier and co-driver Julien Ingrassia who set the pace Thursday’s shakedown stage with a time of 2:33.6, just 0.2 seconds ahead of team mate and main rival for the drivers title Elfyn Evans with co-driver Scott Martin. The Frenchman only requires seven points over Evans to take his eighth driver’s championship.
Friday morning, and Ogier was first into SS1 followed by Evans and the Hyundai Shell Mobis i20 of Thierry Neuville and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe. All crews started on Pirelli’s new PZero WRC HA hard compound tyre.
Evans took the stage 5.1 seconds quicker than Neuville with Ogier third 3.1 seconds adrift. Many drivers experienced understeer issues and battled to find their rhythm.
Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Takamoto Katsuta’s run of bad luck continued as he hit the Armco barrier near the end of the stage, severely damaging the left front suspension and retiring for the day.
Identical times for Evans and Neuville on stage 2, but neither driver felt comfortable with their cars, but the Welshman still held a 5.1 second lead.
Dani Sordo with co-driver Cándido Carrera put his Hyundai ahead of Kalle Rovanperä and co-driver Jonne Halttunen to take fourth place, as Ott Tänak with co-driver Martin Järveoja lost 21.3 seconds when they spun their Hyundai.
Evans had a 7.9 second advantage over Neuville after stage 3, with Ogier third with a fast closing Sordo on his tail. Neuville again complains of understeer and is hoping the issue can be resolved at the Salou service park.
Those adjustments were a game changer for Neuville, he went on to win the next three stages, Evans had no answer, as the Belgian crew dominated the afternoon.
On the day’s penultimate stage he took a massive 7.9 seconds out of the Welshman’s lead, finishing the day first overall by just 0.3 seconds. Evans held second, Ogier third, Sordo fourth, Rovanperä fifth and Adrien Fourmaux with co-drive Alexandre Coria sixth.
It was not a great day for Neuville’s team mate Tänak who crashed out early in stage 4, the car retired from the rally with a damaged chassis.
Saturday morning and the i20 of Neuville set the pace, relentlessly stretching his lead over Evans, winning five of the days seven special stages. The roads became more hazardous as early morning thick fog enveloped the district and driver visibility was very limited.
The end of stage 8 and Neuville’s lead was 6.7 seconds, despite the heavy fog. The second fastest car on the stage was the M-Sport Ford Fiesta of Adrien Fourmaux just 1.7 seconds behind.
Neuville took stage 9 and at the service point was 9 seconds ahead of this nearest challenger. Third was still Ogier but under pressure from Sordo who was out to close the gap in manufacturers title chase, at the end of the morning loop the Spaniard was only 0.2 seconds in arrears. Rovanperä still held fifth with Fourmaux sixth.
The Frenchman’s team mate, Gus Greensmith, had dropped to ninth following a left rear puncture on his Fiesta.
Starting the afternoon loop Neuville took his seventh consecutive stage win and increased his lead to 11.1 seconds over Evans, Ogier benefitted from the lunchtime service tweaks, when on stage 10 he opened a 3,2 second gap to Sordo and maintained his third position overall.
Ogier and Neuville shared the honours on SS11 despite the Toyota driver almost catching Fourmaux towards the end of the stage. Fourmaux had collided with a barrier earlier in the stage and was forced to stop for 7 minutes to make repairs enabling them to limp out of the stage.
The Frenchman had to change a steering arm and remove a driveshaft at the roadside after stage 11, the car effectively now two-wheel-drive. Starting stage 12, the penultimate stage of the day, he was to end a minute off the pace but at least still running.
Evans was having a tough day.”It’s been a frustrating afternoon. We gambled to try and change some stuff to improve the car for the afternoon, but it didn’t work unfortunately and we’ve gone in the opposite direction.” Ogier on the other hand appears to have found the balance he has lacked all weekend and takes his first win on stage.
The final stage of the day and it’s another Belgian clean sweep with Neuville, once again the overnight leader from Evans by 16.4 seconds, with Ogier third after a disastrous last stage.
Just 2.15 km long around the beach front of Salou and 400 metres in the Yaris engine stalled and he loses 5.7 seconds, now he is a meager 1.2 seconds ahead going into the final day.
Sunday morning, the final day and an early start for the teams and once again it’s a Hyundai taking the stage 14 win, but on this occasion it’s the i20 of Sordo who finishes 0.7 seconds ahead of team mate Neuville.
The win by the Spaniard moves him ahead of Ogier for third overall by 0.5 seconds. Sordo has hit his sweet spot and takes stage 15 to increase his lead over Ogier, as Neuville settles for second in the stage but increasing his lead over Evans to 20.6 seconds.
Stage 16 and it is Sordo again who wins the stage by 0.7 seconds from Ogier who desperately wants that third spot back, Neuville is third as Evans finishes sixth three seconds off Sordo’s time but still 15 seconds ahead of the Spaniard overall, is the Welshman saving it all for the Wolf power stage and those extra points?
It was Sordo that took the power stage and the five extra points, with overall victor and second placed on the final stage Neuville collected an extra four points.
But it was almost a disaster for the Belgian crew when the i20 refused to start and was pushed to the regroup area by co-driver Wydaeghe with smoke and flames emanating from the exhaust. Fortunately the Hyundai started and the team was able to complete the final stage. Tänak experienced a similar situation before the final stage of this year’s Acropolis Rally.
The sort of finish Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT were looking for with two spots on the podium, first and third, but it would appear championship hopes are over for 2021, Neuville drove a superbly judged rally to take the top step and never put a foot wrong.
Sordo played the waiting game until the final day when he made his move to take third from championship leader Ogier.
Evans looked set to be the man to beat on day one but it was not to be as he struggled to find the balance in his Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Yaris, but he still has a shot at the title with just one rally and only 17 points between himself and current leader Ogier.
The twelfth and final rally of the 2021 WRC season will be the ACI Rally Monza between the 19th and 21st of November 2021. The all asphalt event be based at the famous Autodromo Nazionale de Monza race circuit near Milan.
1. T.Neuville/M.Wydaeghe Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT i20
2. E. Evans/S. Martin Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Yaris
3. D.Sordo/C.Carrera Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT i20
4. S. Ogier/J.Ingrassia Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Yaris
5. K.Rovanperä/J. Halttunen Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Yaris
6. G. Greensmith/C.Patterson M-Sport Ford WRT Fiesta
7. O.Solberg/C.Drew Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT i20
8. N.Solans/M.Marti Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT i20
16. A. Fourmaux/A.Coria M-Sport Ford WRT Fiesta
FIA World Rally Championship Drivers (after round 11 of 12)
1. S.Ogier 204
2. E.Evans 187
3. T.Neuville 159
4. K.Rovanpera 140
5. O.Tanak 128
6. T.Katsuta 68
7. C.Breen 76
8. G.Greensmith 60
9. D.Sordo 63
10. A.Fourmaux 42
FIA World Rally Championship Manufacturers (after round 11 of 12)
1. Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT 474
2. Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT 427
3. M-Sport Ford WRT 187