Sébastien Ogier has taken his first World Rally Championship victory since securing his eighth world title last season, winning Rally Spain by 16.4s from Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, while Toyota secured the teams’ championship title.
It was a trademark Ogier victory, taking control of the rally on Friday afternoon despite a sub-optimal road position and then managing the gap to Toyota team-mate Kalle Rovanperä thereafter.
Ogier had been concerned that running seventh on the road on Friday would mean dealing with a high level of road pollution from mud and gravel being dragged onto the road – especially as it had rained on Thursday and made the stages slippery.
But on the first stage of the Friday afternoon pass he snatched the lead from Neuville, who had very briefly led after winning stage four, and didn’t look back thereafter.
It was far from a crushing win; Ogier won only eight of the 19 stages (plus a tied notional stage win for the cancelled El Montmell test). But when Rovanperä made a mess of his hybrid settings at the start of the second El Montmell pass and dropped over 10s, Ogier was able to comfortably manage the gap to Neuville behind him for the rest of the rally.
It also marked a first career victory for Ogier’s co-driver Benjamin Veillas, who replaced Julien Ingrassia in the navigator’s seat when Julien Ingrassia retired at the end of last season.
They had come close on the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally until a puncture on the penultimate stage put them behind eventual winner Sébastien Loeb; there would be no late drama this time.
“[It is] Benji’s first win so I’m really happy for him,” said Ogier. “I felt he deserved it in Monte; it was quite hard to take, even more for him. But today it’s fantastic to get another win, also because it was an important weekend for the team.”
Between Ogier and Rovanperä’s podium places, Toyota secured a sufficient amount of points in Spain to wrap up the teams’ championship with a round to go, putting themselves mathematically out of reach of Hyundai.
Neuville was the only driver to mount any sort of meaningful challenge to the lead Toyota pairing, hovering close behind in third place for much of the rally as he struggled to find a combination of settings that got the most out of his i20 N Rally1.
But by continuing to push when the Toyotas seemed ever so slightly out of reach, Neuville was ready to pounce when Rovanperä ended up in a muddle on stage 14, closing up to only 0.4s after El Montmell and then taking second on the Salou superspecial on Saturday night.
Second place became an awful lot more comfortable for Neuville when Rovanperä sustained a puncture on the early morning pass of Riudecanyes, believed to have been caused by clipping a drainage cover at an awkward angle.
Alas, Neuville had little hope of catching Ogier for the victory on the final loop; the rally leader put the top spot out of reach with a win on the penultimate test, then Ogier won the powerstage for good measure, besting Neuville by 0.6s to take a perfect 30-point score.
Behind in the second Hyundai, Ott Tänak was already consigned to a somewhat lonely fourth place by Saturday morning, having struggled with an intermittent hybrid fault on Friday.
Despite the hybrid unit being replaced at midday service on the opening day, the same problem happened again on the day’s final stage, leaving him irate and questioning whether his own team was to blame, rather than hybrid unit supplier Compact Dynamics.
Forced to entertain himself and find new ways to stay in the groove with nothing to fight for, Tänak decided to push on like a win was on the line regardless and consequently had a few interesting moments. He had an off on El Montmell that nearly took him out entirely, running wide on a fast right-hander and cutting through the undergrowth, somehow collecting it up but with the after-effect of the brakes catching fire from all the long grass his car had ingested.
Rovanperä’s Sunday morning puncture gave Tänak the faintest sniff of a podium but ultimately the gap was still too much to catch. When push came to shove Rovanperä stepped up and bested Tänak by 0.7s on the powerstage, securing the final podium place by 9.5s.
“I can only say I’m a bit disappointed on myself,” said Tänak. “I’m just not able to understand the car and learn. I don’t know what I need to do. It’s been on myself and can’t make it work.”
Dani Sordo finished off the podium for the first time since Acropolis Rally Greece in September 2021, bringing the third Hyundai home in fifth.
It was a rally of two distinct halves for Sordo; in the first, he was all at sea, unable to contend with the frontrunners and loitering down in a somewhat insipid sixth place. But his rally came alive on Saturday afternoon, demolishing the entire field on El Montmell and finding his mojo again thereafter.
Sordo was much faster on Sunday, singing the praises of his i20 N Rally1 as it was doing “whatever I want in the stage,” though by that point the top four were far out of reach, with Tänak over half a minute up the road.
There were no similar positives for Elfyn Evans. As in Croatia, his pace on asphalt simply failed to materialize, struggling his way through the rally and simply unable to get near the pace of either Ogier or Rovanperä in the other senior team GR Yaris Rally1s.
Two punctures also meant Evans suffered a fairly hefty dose of bad luck, losing around half a minute the first time it happened on Friday afternoon’s Les Garrigues Altes test and another 10s when it happened again on Riudecanyes, in the exact same place that had caught out Rovanperä.
But even without those setbacks Evans was never really at the races. Take away the puncture time loss and he’d have potentially beaten Sordo to fifth, but, over the course of the rally, he was still a minute slower than Ogier on raw pace alone over the course of 19 stages.
A near identical puncture to Evans’ Friday deflation was also suffered by Takamoto Katsuta but it did little to change his final outcome – seventh, having successfully fended off the gaggle of M-Sport cars that had failed to mount any meaningful challenge from the moment the rally began.
Adrien Fourmaux was seventh on his WRC return after two events on the sidelines, having been benched after a final-day crash in Greece.
He’d been close to Katsuta briefly on Saturday and a quick time on Sunday’s stage in the dark suggested Fourmaux might be able to challenge – but in the end he finished eighth by inheriting a place from team-mate Craig Breen, rather than catching Katsuta.
It was the first time this year Fourmaux had finished a rally as the lead Ford Puma.
“I’m really happy,” said Fourmaux. “The car has been amazing all weekend. Our pace is quite interesting considering all the pressure you can have at the start of the rally. Honestly I’m happy, especially today, we managed it.”
Breen had struggled massively with understeer all rally long, though suggested he’d finally got on top of the front-end issues with his Puma on Sunday morning.
A puncture in the same spot that had also caught Rovanperä and Evans had sent him off into a bank and put him behind Fourmaux into ninth. While he came close, in the end Breen fell 4.6s short of taking eighth place away.
It was also an emotional farewell for Breen’s navigator Paul Nagle, who brought his full-time co-driving career to an end in Spain after 102 WRC starts, 18 podiums and five wins.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” said Nagle, his voice starting to break slightly under the emotion of the occasion. “I came into the sport as a young lad and I followed the dream. I have five wins and I leave as a husband as a father, and a lifetime of memories.”
“I have to thank two special men: the man here beside me [Breen] is like a brother to me, he brought me great success. And I have to mention Kris Meeke back in our Citroën days. Without these men, I would never be where I am today.
“Thank you to everyone; my family, my wife, kids, and all the Irish here this weekend. Thank you.”
James Fulton will pick up the co-driver’s seat alongside Breen at the season finale in Japan as preparation for taking on the full 2023 season together at M-Sport.
Pierre-Louis Loubet rounded out the top 10, having inherited the place from Gus Greensmith when he crashed out on Saturday morning.
A lack of experience compared to his rivals had set him back in terms of raw pace, Loubet believed, though aside from a promising top three time at the end of Friday he failed to make much of an impact for the rest of the rally.
Loubet, like Evans and Katsuta, was another to be set back by a puncture on Friday’s penultimate test, though in the end he lacked the raw pace to keep up with his other M-Sport team-mates.
He also had the drama of his Ford Puma catching fire after stage four, as a joint in the exhaust briefly went alight. Around a minute was lost in total – though he ended the rally three and a half minutes behind Ogier.
“OK, the result will not stay in the book,” confessed Loubet. “But I think we did a good Friday.”
Spain was Greensmith’s third retirement in a row – and the second caused by a driver error.
“For sure not a good weekend but it is what it is,” he mused. “I’m just glad we got out again today.”
Teemu Suninen clinched his first WRC2 victory of the season for Hyundai – but attentions were primarily focused further down the standings in the main support category.
A three-way title race emerged after Acropolis Rally Greece, where an underwhelming seventh place after a superspecial crash by Mikkelsen has allowed Toksport team-mate Emil Lindholm and three-time European Rally champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz an opportunity to go for the top spot.
Mikkelsen has already completed his maximum seven rounds, meaning Lindholm and Kajetanowicz came to Spain chasing Mikkelsen’s points total while also fighting one another.
On stage two Lindholm hit a piece of concrete while leading and sustained a rear-right puncture, causing a spin further down the road that in total cost him a minute and dropped him to 14th.
From there he charged back up the order, catching and passing Kajetanowicz and climbing to fourth by Saturday afternoon.
With Nikolay Gryazin starting to struggle in third, Lindholm sensed an opportunity to take one more place and was flying on the first split of Sunday’s first stage – but then disaster struck, with an impact to the rear costing him almost half a minute by the finish line.
That temporarily demoted him to fifth behind Jari Huttunen, though the white and green Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo quickly retook fourth and then won the powerstage by 3.2s for good measure, adding another three points to his championship tally.
Kajetanowicz meanwhile struggled to make an impact, spending most of the rally in seventh place – which became sixth after Stéphane Sarrazin rolled out of the rally on Saturday afternoon.
The two are now dead-level on 104 points each but neither scored enough points to surpass Mikkelsen, who still has a slim chance of retaining his crown if both Lindholm and Kajetanowciz perform poorly at the Japan season finale.
Up front Suninen took eight stage wins and after fending off Gryazin’s early challenge, managed his lead well to clinch the win by 32.5s from Yohan Rossel, with Gryazin completing the podium.