Thierry Neuville has laid down the gauntlet to Elfyn Evans in the fight to win Rally Spain, beating his rival by 1.7 seconds on Saturday morning’s first stage to construct a 2.4s lead.
Friday in Spain was a day of two halves as Evans bossed the morning while Neuville claimed a clean sweep of afternoon stage wins. It left Neuville’s Hyundai a mere 0.7s ahead of Evans’ Toyota heading into the second day.
Conditions were quite claggy on Saturday morning with moisture and some small pockets of fog hanging over the Savallà test.
However Neuville was unfazed, threading his Hyundai to a fourth stage win in a row.
“It was a good start,” he said. “Obviously conditions are much dirtier than expected and the visibility was less than expected.
“I watched the WRC+ Live before and it looked quite OK but obviously the fog was moving a bit but it’s OK.”
By contrast Evans wasn’t happy with his SS7 performance, claiming he “was too careful, just not committing enough”.
While Sébastien Ogier has become resigned to being a distant player to the battle out front, he did declare himself happier with the set-up of his Toyota Yaris WRC after an off-color Friday.
And crucially, Ogier nicked 0.9s away from fourth-placed Dani Sordo to extend his cushion to 6.3s overall.
“The car is better, I can trust it, so I’m more happy,” said Ogier.
Kalle Rovanperä’s run in fifth overall was looking increasingly lonely, but he may have reignited his hopes of a fight after outpacing Sordo ahead of him on the leaderboard.
Rovanperä “was not pushing that hard really” but clawed back 1.8s on the local driver to trail by 11.4s, setting the third-quickest stage time in the process.
Sordo at least will be able to understand where he leaked the time as he admitted “I didn’t feel very well in the stage”.
Nil Solans set an impressive pace on SS7, beating 2C Competition Hyundai team-mate Oliver Solberg by 8.7s to close his deficit to 26.2s overall.
“I want to keep improving,” said World Rally Car debutant Solans. “We analyzed everything last night and we’ve got the car and new springs, and the car is working really well now.”
His speed was strong enough for the sixth-fastest time, quicker than both M-Sport Fords driven by Adrien Fourmaux and Gus Greensmith.
Fourmaux, in sixth overall, was the quicker of the two Fiesta WRCs but felt he was losing time at the apex of several corners which cost him on the subsequent straights.
Solberg meanwhile had a “very bad run but it doesn’t matter” with his objective simply to learn the rally.
“I just want to learn the roads and check the notes,” he said.
Takamoto Katsuta completed his first Rally Spain stage of 2021 without incident, restarting following his retirement on Friday when he crashed into Armco barrier on SS1.
He was however the second-slowest World Rally Car, 0.7s off Greensmith’s SS7 pace.
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 7m22.5s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +1.7s
3 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +2.5s
4 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +3.4s
5 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai) +4.3s
6 Nil Solans/Marc Marti (Hyundai) +7.6s
Leading positions after SS7
1 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 1h08m49.1s
2 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +2.4s
3 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) +22.8s
4 Sordo/Carrera (Hyundai) +29.1s
5 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +40.5s
6 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford) +1m18.1s
7 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +1m41.0s
8 Oliver Solberg/Craig Drew (Hyundai) +2m11.9s
9 Solans/Marti (Hyundai) +2m38.1s
10 Eric Camilli/Maxime Vilmot (Citroën) +4m22.0s