WRC Preview: Rally Spain
Written by Apostolos Papageorgiou, Edited by Simran Kanthi
Kalle Rovanperä became the youngest World Rally Champion last time out in New Zealand, eclipsing Colin McRae's record that stood for 17 years. The fight for second place and the Constructors' Championship is still on as we head to Spain for the penultimate round of the season. The wide and ultrasmooth roads of Catalunya mean that the Rally1 cars enter their ground-hugging mode with stiffened suspensions and slick tyres to complete the image. Add in all the cuts and gutters on the side of the road and you can see why all drivers think this is the closest the WRC gets to closed circuit racing, with more emphasis on choosing the right lines during the special stages than any other event on the calendar.
While it used to be a mixed surface rally from 2010 to 2019, Spain switched to pure asphalt again for its 2021 return. Notable moments from the past include McRae's duel with Carlos Sainz in 1995 and Pierro Liatti in 1996, Phillip Bulgaski's win with a Formula Two kit car in 1999, Gilles Panizzi doing donuts while being almost a minute ahead of the competition in 2002 and also him snatching the win from a young Sebastien Loeb on the final stage a year later.
Rovanperä may be the new World Champion but he and his sparring partner for most of the season, Ott Tänak, are not the favourites for the win. That honour goes to Tänak's teammate and third-placed in the standings, Thierry Neuville. The Belgian has suffered a lot this year, but he has won the last two rallies in Spain and would like to add a second victory to his season. However, his task isn't so straightforward because present at Catalunya will be two tarmac specialists, Sebastien Ogier and Dani Sordo, taking over from Oliver Solberg who announced that he isn't going to continue with Hyundai in 2023.
These two titans of asphalt rallying will be going head to head once again, hoping to show the world they are still very much able to fight with the best, especially Ogier who hasn't won a rally this year, unlike his arch nemesis, Sebastien Loeb. Aside from them, there is also Graig Breen. Brought up on Irish tarmac, he is desperate for a good end to the year. It's also an emotional rally for Breen as his co-driver, Paul Nagle has made it known he will retire after Catalunya. Lastly, Eflyn Evans is looking to put the disappointment of New Zealand behind him and get his first victory in 12 months.
As for the rest, Takamoto Katsuta's streak of eighth-place finishes finally ended in New Zealand after going off. The Japanese driver would look to secure his fifth place in the standings this weekend over the aforementioned Graig Breen. M-Sport's French duo, Adrien Fourmaux and Pierre-Louis Loubet are also making their return to Spain. Both, quick on the tarmac, are looking for a good result and a strong end to their season, especially Fourmaux who has had a tough year in 2022. Finally, Jourdan Serderidis will compete at his third and final rally of the season. The half-Greek, half-Belgian was forced to retire last time out at Acropolis and is hoping for better luck (and pace) this weekend.
In the constructors' standings, the championship looks to be heading to Toyota for a second year running unless Hyundai can find an answer to their pace and reliability, the Yaris suffering the fewest mechanical retirements of all the new Rally1 cars by a long way.