Understeer. No rally driver likes it, no rally driver wants it.
But on Rally Spain – particularly on Friday morning’s opening loop – several World Rally Championship drivers had armfuls of it.
And managing this cursed handling trait has proved influential to the overall leaderboard heading into Saturday.
For the uninitiated, understeer is when the front of the vehicle refuses to turn in as sharply as intended; washing wide and just generally making life more difficult for the driver.
Oversteer is a rally driver’s happy place; hanging the tail out in spectacular style as the car rotates more than intended.
But on asphalt stages – nowhere more pertinently than the circuit-like Spanish roads – understeer can be common as the high-grip surface works against the set-up of the cars.
Dialing it out is therefore key, because as soon as a driver approaches a corner and the car doesn’t respond as they want, that saps confidence.
And to steal a quote from Thierry Neuville: “It’s all about the confidence as we know, and if the confidence is not there just because the car is not working as you want or the pacenotes are not like they should be, you just miss that little bit to do what Elfyn [Evans] did this morning.”
Evans rose above the dreaded understeer on the first loop. His opening stage performance – described by Neuville as “incredible” – was particularly emphatic, the Toyota driver leaping into a 5.1-second lead from the get-go. He was able to narrowly increase that across the morning.
“It was something that we tried to work around a little bit, to be honest,” Evans said of the understeer that was frustrating his rivals.
“And even in shakedown we tried to work around it. Definitely you can always be better, and understeer is always a topic on this rally. It’s a balance, but obviously now with more gravel [on the road from the cuts] we have to be careful with making too many changes.”
Kalle Rovanperä gave great insight into the issue, believing the updated compound of Pirelli tire was having a profound effect.
“I think everybody else is also complaining about understeering quite a lot and I think it’s coming quite a lot from the tires, [it’s the] first time we are on this kind of road where we really load the tire a lot and it looks like it doesn’t take it so well,” he said.
“You cannot really combine the grip so much by braking or turning. Yeah it’s tricky.
“For me I never like understeer. I don’t like to drive like this, it’s difficult.
“I try all the time to change something in the driving style and a bit the set-up to really get a good feeling with the car and the balance. It’s more tricky than we like but sometimes it’s like this.”
M-Sport’s Gus Greensmith agreed that it was “more the tires rather than the cars” that were causing the understeer, but said “that’s just something we have to adjust to”.
“It’s just got to do with how much the compound moves, and how much it heats up and how it copes with the heat,” he explained.
“You can always manage it, but at these stages, they’re not really long enough to need managing, so you just need to be pushing through.
“And once the tire heats up and it’s moving over the top of the surface, the rubber’s moving around which just generates the understeer and gives you basically more flex at the front of the car.”
Neuville tried his utmost to drive through the problem. He shared the SS2 scratch time with Evans but was finding life “a bit frustrating” aboard his Hyundai. But it didn’t come as a surprise.
“We confirmed in shakedown that the feeling on the test was very similar, so we tried to react and did already some changes for today but unfortunately we can’t get it right,” he said.
The contrast in style was obvious. Evans looked effortless, threading his Toyota Yaris WRC from corner to corner while Neuville constantly had to tug the handbrake in his i20 Coupe WRC to keep the nose tucked into the bend.
Upon finding out that Evans wasn’t having to take these measures, Neuville actually moved backwards in amazement.
He admitted there was “a lot, a lot” of handbrake usage in his car, and added: “and my tires are dead as well, so we need to work on that”.
Work on it is precisely what he did, though. While Neuville naturally wasn’t willing to give DirtFish “all the secrets” the set-up changes he made for the second loop clearly worked.
“I mentioned I was struggling a bit with the understeer,” Neuville said at the end of the day.
“My engineer was able to convince me to do quite a big change on the car and it worked well, so I was happy with that, and now I am pushing them to do more for tomorrow as I have the feeling we can still improve.
“You won’t get all the secrets, but in general we changed a bit the balance of the car to be able to just get a bit more confidence and a bit more turn-in.”
Neuville turned a 7.9s disadvantage into a 0.7s advantage across the loop, doing the heavy lifting on SS5 with a commanding win that moved him to the front.
He was aided by a wild moment for Evans and the more gravelly stage conditions, but it was evident that the Neuville swagger was back.
Evans was naturally not quite as buoyant at the end of the day as he had been at lunch.
“Thierry had a pretty good run,” he said. “I think the first and the last one, there wasn’t a lot to split us really it was tenths here or there, but of course the one that put the sting in the tail was this middle stage.
“We had this pretty hairy moment near the start and then I didn’t really find so much confidence in the dirty cuts to be honest. I think I lost too much time in these areas.
“It’s definitely let’s say better [for us] when [the stages are] clean, we can see that already from the morning, but we can work on that now but I think this middle stage today was pretty extreme to be honest.
“Probably one of the worst we’re going to see from the whole rally so at this stage it’s not the end of the world but of course it’s an area we need to work on.”
It’s been a rally of two halves so far. Part one belonged to Evans, part two to Neuville. Saturday is a whole new day where a completely different profile of stages await, and just a whisker separates two of the finest asphalt drivers of a generation.