Thierry Neuville has claimed his second victory of the 2021 World Rally Championship season on Rally Spain, but second place for Elfyn Evans ensures the title fight between himself and Sébastien Ogier continues to the final round.
Evans started Rally Spain with a 24-point deficit to Ogier, knowing that if he was outscored by six points he would have lost his shot at a maiden title.
However he outscored Ogier by seven points in Spain; Ogier finishing fourth behind Dani Sordo and collecting two points from a rain-soaked powerstage, while Evans pipped Ogier by 0.3s on that test to pick up three bonus points.
It means for the second year in succession, Ogier and Evans will head to the final round in Monza as Toyota team-mates scrapping for the title. This year, Ogier will be in the ascendency with a 17-point advantage.
Toyota’s expected securing of the manufacturers crown has been put on ice however. It needed to not be outscored by Hyundai by more than nine points in Spain to seal it, but scored 35 points to Hyundai’s 49.
Neuville was the dominant force in Spain for Hyundai but not initially, as it was Evans who set a blistering pace on the opening test; five seconds quicker than anybody else.
But as Friday morning wore on and the crews headed out for the afternoon loop it was Neuville who was boss, taking the lead on SS5 with his own stunning effort that was aided by Evans surviving a wild moment early on, lucky not to crash after bouncing across a kerb.
Once Neuville was in front he didn’t look back, winning seven stages in a row across Friday and Saturday and six of the seven tests on day two to pull clear of the helpless Evans.
Sunday was all about managing the lead and Neuville did this with aplomb, but there was a late scare as his Hyundai suffered start motor issues in the regroup before the powerstage.
Neuville eventually defeating Evans by 24.1s to record back-to-back Rally Spain wins. It was the 15th WRC victory of his career, moving him one ahead of team-mate Ott Tänak.
“Relieved to be at the end,” Neuville said after crossing the line to finish the powerstage.
“[It] was a tough weekend, we fight very hard and until nearly the end everything was perfect. Lots of stress before the last stage, really disappointed because without that the weekend would’ve been perfect and nice but unfortunately now it isn’t.”
Evans said he was “pleased in one sense but quite frustrated in another” with his distant second place.
“If you took one-two in a row it’s not a bad set of results but we’re fighting a bit of a cause here,” he added. “Not what we really wanted but there you go.”
Behind the top two a fierce battle developed between Ogier and Sordo.
Ogier basically made third spot his own across the first two days as he chased a workable set-up on his Toyota Yaris WRC that would give him the confidence.
He found that on Saturday afternoon but couldn’t shake Sordo, and when Ogier stalled on a hairpin on Saturday’s showpiece stage in Salou he suddenly only had 1.2s in hand over Sordo.
The home hero seized his chance and wasted little time in deposing Ogier of the rostrum’s final step. He won all four of Sunday’s stages – including the powerstage – to edge the championship leader by 6.8s.
It was Sordo’s ninth podium from 15 starts at his home event in a World Rally Car and the 50th podium finish of his WRC career.
“You can’t imagine how happy I am,” Sordo said. “For my co-driver [Cándido Carrera] it’s his first podium and he deserves it because he was working very hard.”
Ogier’s take was: “It’s points for the championship, of course coming here I was targeting [more] here but for some reasons it didn’t happen. In a hard time it still makes what we need for the championship.”
Kalle Rovanperä bounced back from the disappointment of Rally Finland to secure a somewhat lonely fifth overall. The 20-year-old survived a major scare of his own on Saturday as he dropped off the road through a fast left-right kink and had to make a trip to the field, narrowly missing two stage-side cameras.
Gus Greensmith signed off co-driver Chris Patterson’s WRC career with sixth place, recovering back two positions following a puncture that on Saturday that had dumped him behind the two 2C Competition-run Hyundai i20 Coupe WRCs.
“What an absolute gentleman he’s been, genuinely the privilege of a lifetime now to work with him,” said Greensmith of his departing co-driver. “He’s done now, he can have a beer.”
Patterson added: “I’ve had such a great career, I’ve loved every minute of it, thanks to all the people I’ve met it’s been an absolute pleasure, thank you.”
Oliver Solberg was the leading 2C driver and equalled his best ever WRC result in seventh after a weekend of learning and building up confidence following a bruising run of form in both WRC and WRC2.
“It was a good fun weekend, I think we did some progress,” Solberg surmised. “It’s been a tough couple of races with a lot of bad luck and some small mistakes from my side so it’s nice to have a package that’s working all weekend.”
Team-mate Nil Solans was 8.2s behind in eighth, filling in for the injured Pierre-Louis Loubet and making his first ever start in a World Rally Car.
He thoroughly enjoyed himself, joking on Saturday that he “needs no more sex” this year such was the pleasure he was deriving behind the wheel.
Neither Tänak, Adrien Fourmaux nor Takamoto Katsuta featured in the top 10 as they each suffered accidents throughout the weekend.
Tänak was an early fourth, just ahead of Hyundai team-mate Sordo, before suffering what he called an “impressive spin” on SS2.
Things got worse however when he crashed out of SS4, running wide on a quick right-hander and smacking a tree stump with the rear-left of his Hyundai. The damage to the chassis proved too great for Tänak to be able to take any further part in the weekend.
Katsuta’s exit was a tad more embarrassing as he misunderstood a pacenote on the very first stage and nosed into a protective Armco barrier. He made it to the end of SS1 but retired on the road section before returning to action on Saturday and Sunday.
Fourmaux meanwhile had been running sixth, building his pace up on Saturday before a small mistake had big consequences. The M-Sport driver kissed the Armco on a narrow section and heavily damaged the front-left of his Fiesta WRC.
He changed a tire on the stage and altered his differential to get the car moving, but carried out yet more repairs after the stage – removing a driveshaft and repairing a steering arm – just to remain in the event.
It proved successful and Fourmaux made it through the rest of the Saturday and Sunday unscathed.
These dramas allowed the leading Rally2 cars to fill out the bottom two positions in the top 10. Eric Camilli was at the head of that pack, winning WRC2 in his Citroën C3 Rally2 ahead of Teemu Suninen who was competing in a Hyundai i20 N Rally2.
Mads Østberg had been fighting Camilli for victory and indeed needed a big result to stand any chance of retaining his WRC2 title. But a puncture on Friday afternoon ruined his bid and restricted him to fourth, handing the WRC2 title to Andreas Mikkelsen who didn’t compete in Spain.
Emil Lindholm topped WRC3 on the stages for the second rally in a row following victory in Finland last month, but co-driver Reeta Hämäiläinen will receive full championship points after a cheeky entry quirk with Lindholm already contesting his six allotted rounds.
Title challenger Kajetan Kajetanowicz scooped second in class ahead of Hyundai junior Josh McErlean.
Sami Pajari has been crowned the Junior WRC Champion for 2021, becoming the first Finn and the youngest ever to claim the title, winning the rally too as chief rival Jon Armstrong crashed out.
Armstrong had led the way before misjudging his braking in the fog of Saturday morning and getting beached at the side of the road. He lost five minutes but worse was to follow later in the day when he retired for good, clouting his front-left wheel in a cut.
1 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai) 10m09,383s
2 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +1.414s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +4.120s
4 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +4.495s
5 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +6.821s
6 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +14.502s
Final classification after SS17
1 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 2h34m11.8s
2 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +24.1s
3 Sordo/Carrera (Hyundai) +35.3s
4 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) +42.1s
5 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) +1m31.8s
6 Greensmith/Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +4m17.3s
7 Oliver Solberg/Craig Drew (Hyundai) +4m26.7s
8 Nil Solans/Marco Marti (Hyundai) +4m34.9s
9 Eric Camilli/Maxime Vilmot (Citroën) +9m49.4s
10 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Skoda) +10m05.9s
1 Ogier 204 2 Evans 187 3 Neuville 159 4 Rovanperä 140 5 Ott Tänak 128 6 Craig Breen 76 7 Takamoto Katsuta 68 8 Sordo 63 9 Greensmith 60 10 Adrien Fourmaux 42
1 Toyota Gazoo Racing 474 2 Hyundai Motorsport 427 3 M-Sport Ford 187 4 Hyundai 2C Competition 52