Things can very quickly change in the world of the WRC and as the series visited the shores of Spain for the penultimate round of 2018 (25-28 October), the pendulum had swung yet again. After a run of three victories in Finland, Germany and Turkey, Ott Tanak had been on course to be championship favourite in the final few rounds, but after dominating Rally GB, a broken radiator on the Saturday left Tanak adrift of his title rivals. Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville had been the series leader for the majority of 2018 but with five times champion Sebastian Ogier taking victory in Wales, the title race was now wide open. The M-Sport Ford driver will switch to Citroen for 2019 but currently remained in the hunt for title number six, as came into the penultimate round only six points behind Neuville. After losing ground with a DNF Tanak had slipped to third in the Toyota, twenty-one points back from top spot. The mixed surface Rally de España would be a test for all the crews and drivers mainly due to set up requirements, as half of the rally takes place on gravel, before switching to tarmac around the Catalonia region, in the historic town of Salou. To add extra spice to Rally de España, nine times WRC champion Sebastian Loeb would return to the wheel of the Citroen C3 WRC, hunting for the manufactures first win in 2018 and providing experience to support Craig Breen who unfortunately has had a difficult season in 2018, especially following the departure of Kris Meeke after Rally Portugal. Team mate Mads Ostberg would miss the trip to Spain due to addition of Loeb. Ford would also have an additional name in their camp alongside Ogier, Elfyn Evans and Teemu Suninen as American Ken Block returned to the WRC backed by Hoonigan Racing. Block is no stranger to the WRC after making multiple appearances since 2007 but this would be his first at the wheel of the new specification WRC cars, which debuted in 2017. Whilst a lot of attention would be on the top three during the rally, there were plenty of other drivers in the manufacture camps hungry for a first win of the season, especially at Toyota as Finland’s Jari-Matti Latvala and Esapekka Lappi have matched Tanak for pace and recorded numerous podiums throughout the season. The two came into Spain separated by six points with Lappi just ahead of his more experienced countryman. Hyundai were another team chasing podiums with more than one driver as alongside Neuville, Norway’s Andreas Mikkelsen had showed signs of his abilities in 2018. Whilst only recording one podium in 2018, Mikkelsen had taken plenty of Powerstage points, coming into Rally Spain in sixth on 83 points and in contention of challenging Lappi and Latvala ahead of him come the season finale.
Title Rivals make their mark on Thursday
Rally RACC got underway on Thursday morning with the traditional shakedown stage around the gravel roads and roundabouts of Salou, before teams would head for the City Centre of Barcelona for a special stage in front out of the Montjuic Park. The 1.2-mile test for the crews early morning helped teams prepare the cars for the event ahead; however, championship leader Thierry Neuville suffered the first error of the rally, catching a rut on the corner and rolling on his second run. With the car requiring repair, Neuville ended shakedown early and headed for the service park. As one title challenge suffered, Sebastian Ogier excelled in the M-Sport Fiesta, setting the fastest time in a session which was constantly interrupted by delays. Teemu Suninen joined his M-Sport team mate in the top three at the end of shakedown, split by the Toyota of Jari-Matti Latvala, with the Finn three tenths slower than the multiple WRC champion. Another multiple champion showed his class in the Shakedown, as nine times champion Sebastien Loeb went fourth fastest, 1.1 seconds down on Ogier’s best time. With Loeb a winner of Rally RACC eight times, he was going to be one to watch on his return to the WRC.
The street stage in Barcelona was a tricky opener for the crews, as a two-mile course was laid out around the fountains, walkways and road, incorporating tight corners and doughnut opportunities. Drivers ran in reverse of championship order with WRC guest Ken Block opening the stage. The American, ever a showman, showed his Gymkhana skills with two more doughnuts than necessary set a benchmark time. As Sebastien Loeb followed next, a costly stall on one of the corners hampered his overall time to end day one and as the regular runners came through, times got quicker and quicker. Craig Breen was fastest for most of the opening stage before local hero Dani Sordo put the Hyundai i20 to the top of the times. Elfyn Evans went quicker for M-Sport as he fought to retain his seat for 2019, but Andreas Mikkelsen took top spot away moments later. When the championship contenders entered the stage, Ott Tanak took the Toyota to the top of times but Ogier backed up his speed from the shakedown, going to the top of times, 3m35.3 seconds. Neuville was the last of the WRC runners as series leader but was slower than Ogier by 3.7 seconds, handing his title rival the advantage after the opening stage. Heading into Friday stages, Thierry Neuville would open the road due to championship position and was expected to struggle for times as acting as a road sweeper for the cars behind.
WRC Rally RACC – Times after SS1:
- Ogier/Ingrassia (M-Sport Ford WRT) = 3m35.3s
- Neuville/Gilsoul (Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT) = +3.7s
- Tanak/Jarveoja (Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT) = +4.2s
- Mikkelsen/Jager (Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT) = +5.6s
- Evans/Barritt (M-Sport Ford WRT) = +6.0s
Tanak fights hard in Friday’s Stages
Friday’s stages of Rally RACC consisted of six gravel stages starting with Gandesa as SS2 as the sun rose over Salou. The Gandesa stage was short, only 7km and Tanak was flying in the Toyota Yaris. To remain in the championship fight, the Estonian needed the victory and with a time of 4:19.6, Tanak took SS2 to cut Ogier’s lead to a single tenth of a second, ahead of the first running of Pesells, a 26.59km stage and a test for the teams, before tackling La Fatarella-Vilable, the last stage before a service break. Toyota would control proceedings in the morning with Jari-Matti Latvala winning SS3, in a stage which saw Tanak take the overall lead of the rally. Ogier lost ground in stages 2 and 3 as team mate Elfyn Evans took the fight to Toyota, but the Welshman sat 11.7 seconds adrift of Tanak at the end of SS4. Championship leader Thierry Neuville was struggling as the first car on each stage and after the morning loop was down in eighth position. Before the morning service took place, Jari-Matti Latvala looked set to take the lead of the Rally, however a puncture during SS4 ruined the Finn’s chances and he slipped down to tenth overall. Team mate Esapekka Lappi was also suffering woes in the Yaris but luckily for their championship contender, all was going to plan in the morning.
The afternoon stages would see the three from the morning repeated and for Ott Tanak, this gave him a chance to pull clear at the top of the times. SS5 went in favour of Spaniard Dani Sordo, who gained time on Tanak but in SS6 and SS7 the gap was maintained, mainly due to Jari-Matti Latvala recovering to go quickest in both, lifting himself from tenth overall to fifth. Elfyn Evans was continuing to challenge the top two as the leading Fiesta, but a slow time in SS7 left him in danger of Sebastien Loeb lying fourth, by only 0.5 seconds. The Frenchman had been more aggressive in the afternoon and his experience in Spain was paying off. Apart from Dani Sordo, Hyundai were having a difficult rally as Andreas Mikkelsen lied sixth and Neuville ninth. Luckily for Neuville, Ogier was finding things tough in seventh, with Craig Breen’s Citroen in eighth.
WRC Rally RACC – Times after SS7:
- Tanak/Jarveoja (Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT) = 1h34m27.4s
- Sordo/Del Barrio (Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT) = +26.8s
- Evans/Barritt (M-Sport Ford WRT) = +29.7s
- Loeb/Elena (Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT) = +30.2s
- Latvala/Anttila (Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT) = +37.6s
Change to Tarmac Swings Rally Momentum
When Friday’s stages ended the crews went to work at the service park changing the setup from gravel to tarmac, ahead of the final two days to complete Rally RACC. Advantage was with Ott Tanak and with SS8, Savalla being cancelled due to poor spectating, crews moved to Querol and El Montmell with conditions turning colder and wetter compared to Friday. Toyota gambled on wet weather tyres and in SS9, Querol, Ott Tanak extended his advantage with yet another stage win. As he moved into SS10 though disaster struck the Estonian, as he was forced to stop mid-stage, losing two minutes to change a front left tyre which had deflated. Tanak slipped to ninth in the times and to the delight of the crowd, promoted Dani Sordo into the lead of the rally. His lead though was slender, as Latvala continued to push and was adrift by 0.3 seconds going into the afternoon. Evans continued to hold third but the driver on a charge and favouring conditions was Sebastien Loeb, closing on the three in front. His fellow countryman Ogier was also starting to perform, climbing to fifth by the end of SS10 and closing in on a podium place.
With conditions only marginally improving for the afternoon run, Thierry Neuville found some pace on SS11 in the re-run of Savalla, benefitting due to road position and going quickest. His team mate Dani Sordo though favoured badly, losing his lead in this stage to Jari-Matti Latvala, a lead which the Finn would hold until close of play, without a stage win. SS12 went the way of Sebastien Loeb who moved into a podium position closing on Dani Sordo. Ogier was also on a charge and benefitted from a mistake Sordo made, as the Spaniard dropped to sixth with the slowest time of SS13. Neuville gained the most on Saturday afternoon and with another stage win, closed on Elfyn Evans who lied fourth. The Salou street stage ended the day for the competitors and with Tanak taking a stage win, declared his championship challenge was probably over. Going into the final four stages on Sunday, Latvala held a lead of 4.7 seconds over Sebastien Ogier, with Loeb holding Evans off the podium on his return to competitive action in the WRC.
WRC Rally RACC – Times after SS14:
- Latvala/Anttila (Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT) = 2h35m01.8s
- Ogier/Ingrassia (M-Sport Ford WRT) = +4.7s
- Loeb/Elena (Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT) = +8.0s
- Evans/Barritt (M-Sport Ford WRT) = +9.8s
- Neuville/Gilsoul (Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT) = +12.7s
Loeb unstoppable on final day
The final day of Rally RACC would see the Riudecanyes and Santa Marina stages run twice, with SS18, Santa Marina 2 being the crucial power stage to end the rally, ahead of the season finale in Australia. Latvala was rally leader after Saturday’s afternoon run, but asphalt specialist Sebastien Loeb was showing why he is one of the greatest in the WRC, taking victory on SS15, 16 and 17. The speed Loeb showed in Citroen gambling on hard tyres promoted him from third to first, ahead of countryman Ogier and Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville. The tyre gamble paid off on the opening run of Riudecanyes as he went 6.1 seconds faster than Dani Sordo’s benchmark and then he went even faster on SS16, to lead Ogier by 7.1 seconds. Neuville gambled also in the morning to try and take the fight to Ogier and lied fourth at the end of SS16, heading into the final two stages.
Riudecanyes started the afternoon loop of stages ad with Loeb looking to cement his lead ahead of the Powerstage; a dramatic stall at the roundabout section lost him eight seconds and allowed Ogier to close in ahead of SS18. Ogier would go fastest in SS18 as a result with Evans making it a 1-2 for M-Sport. The gap between the Frenchmen fell to 3.6 seconds with Ogier hungry for victory. As the Powerstage set pulses racing, Ott Tanak set the time that no one would beat, taking five championship points with a time of 8:02.5s. Ogier was charging and would be the closest to Tanak’s time, two seconds slower and crucial in second and ahead of Neuville. As Loeb entered the stage, Neuville lied fifth behind Evans and Sordo, looking likely to miss out of Powerstage points. Loeb appeared to be struggling with understeer throughout the final stage and broke the timing beam at 8:05.3, taking third on the final stage. The time though was good enough for the nine times WRC champion to record yet another victory and his first in six years. Loeb had also topped up his record of Rally RACC victories, which now stood at nine.
Ahead of Australia, the WRC final round in November, the second-place finish and four bonus Powerstage points meant Sebastien Ogier would go in as championship leader, after climbing onto 204 points. Neuville slipped to second with the gap between the rivals just three points with plenty to play for. After an up and down rally for Toyota, finishing in positions sixth-eighth, Ott Tanak slipped to a deficit of twenty points going to Australia, however is still mathematically in the hunt for his first WRC title.
In a boost to his Ford career for 2019, Elfyn Evans ended Rally RACC with an overall podium of third, 16.5 seconds down on team mate Ogier and crucially ahead of Thierry Neuville. On his home rally, Dani Sordo completed the top five ahead of the three Toyotas. Craig Breen ended the rally ninth overall after a difficult few days behind the wheel of the Citroen C3, whilst Andreas Mikkelsen was tenth for Hyundai. Teemu Suninen was outside the top ten for M-Sport whilst American Ken Block suffered a turbulent time, after a high-speed roll on SS7 cut his rally short.
WRC Rally RACC – Final Result:
- Loeb/Elena (Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT) = 3h12m08.0s
- Ogier/Ingrassia (M-Sport Ford WRT) = +2.9s
- Evans/Barritt (M-Sport Ford WRT) = +16.5s
- Neuville/Gilsoul (Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT) = +17.0s
- Sordo/Del Barrio (Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT) = +18.6s
Written and Produced by Chris Collier and Cheryl Closs.