It really shows how competitive the current era of World Rally Championship competition is that both world titles will be decided next month in Monza on the final ever rally for this generation of machinery.
The penultimate showing of these 350+ horsepower World Rally Cars, and the stars driving them, didn’t disappoint as they were dealt the challenges of asphalt rallying in the wet and dry, as well as in the night and day, in Spain.
Then of course there was the cutting, with drivers bringing in the gravel that was otherwise missing as the rally returned to a single-surface itinerary for the first time since 2009.
That added a little more risk to the stages, particularly for those down the running order, and contributed to some pretty lairy moments that weren’t always saved at the wheel.
Here’s what we learned from 2021 Rally Spain:
Takamoto Katsuta needs a break
Takamoto Katsuta was one of the drivers who had a lairy moment, although in his case it was an opening stage pacenote misunderstanding that sent him Armco-bound. The scale of the impact wasn’t fully realized until he was on a road section, and the consequent retirement meant Katsuta has now gone four rally starts without a top-10 finish in the WRC.
How much does this, and two co-driver replacements in that time, take out of a driver who was the toast of the WRC four months ago?
“I’m missing a few steps, but the level is coming up and getting closer and closer,” Katsuta said to DirtFish.
“[It was a] quite OK weekend, of course the result was not there and I’m very, very disappointed with my mistake, but still I learned many, many things from this rally so it was good.”
Asked how and when he could get back to his summer form, Katsuta replied: “Let’s say I’m not sure, but I am trying to be an even better driver than that at that moment.
“I’m getting a lot of experience, more than when I was on Safari, so some rallies I can push more and be more committed to some stages, but the problem is now mentally I’m not so, let’s say, really confident.
“Somehow many, many things happen mid-season, so it was really very hard for myself. Now it’s starting to move forward. I made a mistake, but still things are going on. Hopefully it will pan out to a better way.”
There are experienced heads at Toyota, including team principal Jari-Matti Latvala, who Katsuta can consult on how to bounce back from successive disappointments. But his repeated learning process with new co-drivers has been costly and makes the decision on who is picked to sit alongside him on Monza Rally even harder because it will be putting 2022 on Katsuta’s mind with testing around the corner too.
There could be a glimpse of a return of a positive momentum for Katsuta, because a “very good, bright future” is what he foresees with Aaron Johnston after their second time sharing a car together at the weekend.
Hyundai’s low-key auditions went well
There must be something about the Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC, and the new i20 N Rally2 that’s drawn from so many of the development tricks learned when developing it, that is kind to incoming drivers.
When Pierre-Louis Loubet made his World Rally Car debut with Hyundai last year his stage splits caught the eye and when Oliver Solberg became his team-mate at 2C Competition for the first time on Arctic Rally Finland he stunned by finishing seventh overall and rivalling Sébastien Ogier on the stages.
There were two more new names to Hyundai who introduced themselves on Rally Spain, and slightly under-the-radar both did very well.
Spanish Gravel and 2017 Junior WRC Champion Nil Solans stepped in at 2C to replace the currently injured Loubet, for what was his first ever World Rally Car start. He had one top-eight stage time on his first day in the car, then started his second by going just 7.6 seconds slower than stage winner Theirry Neuville and 3.3s slower than fellow Spaniard Dani Sordo, both in i20 Coupe WRCs.
Suninen ticked the boxes needed to see him in a Hyundai for Monza
Over the seven stages of Saturday, he was in the top eight on four of them and went into Sunday just 8.6s away from sixth place and the team’s best ever result. While the strong pace continued, those around him picked up their game too and so he finished eighth.
Also finding the limits of a Hyundai for the first time was former M-Sport driver Teemu Suninen who has reinvigorated his career since leaving his previous employer. He won Rally Finland in class driving a Volkswagen Polo GTI Rally2, and came second in Spain in Hyundai’s i20 N Rally2.
It may have been a finish outside of the overall points, but as Suninen explained it ticked the boxes needed to see him in a Hyundai for Monza.
“I think so after these results,” he said when asked if he was set to stay on at his latest brand. “The main goal for this rally was to get understanding for the team from the car, and I think we did it quite well and we know which areas to work on and also how to change my driving style.”
Don’t rule out what’s been learned in the Rally2 vehicle to not be applicable to its WRC counterpart if 2C needs a more experienced driver to end the season on a high…
Hyundai’s gremlins are a theme
How many times this year has a rally been lost by Hyundai rather than won by Toyota? It’s been discussed many times at DirtFish, and at first the number one culprit was suspension that was succumbing to failure on rough gravel rallies.
But there’s been even more trouble, with electric issues and frequent stalls at low revs that have cost drivers time on regular occasions. Neuville described them as affecting every rally, but also being random, and he’s quite right.
It’s when he or team-mate Ott Tänak have been in a winning position that they’ve been struck by mechanical misfortune, and team principal Andrea Adamo – who claims he is not one for excuses – has hypothesised the i20s literally have lives of their own.
Those points appeared again in Spain as, one stage from victory, Neuville was afflicted by a starter motor problem that led to a spectacular fire emerging from the rear of his i20 once it received a push start. While that’s obviously not what you want to see, it was good news in that the car did get going and nobody was hurt.
When asked by DirtFish if the i20 has proven it was the quickest car, Adamo replied: “Yeah, with some shock in the end. Looks like I was born to suffer, and I’m doing it in style.
“We tried everything in the workshop and in tests, every time we have no problem. The car’s soul only suffers on a rally, I don’t know!
“It looks like the starter motor didn’t work again. Honestly, I don’t know why. I’m counting down the days from the 21st of November, Sunday of Monza.”
That’s when the season ends, and when focus can switch entirely to Hyundai’s Rally1 car to ensure it doesn’t have the same mechanical gremlins baked in as the i20 Coupe WRC.
Neuville is now WRC asphalt king
Belgian rally driver = great on asphalt is really too much of a cliché in this era of surface specialism being largely irrelevant. The vast majority of Neuville’s 15 World Rally event wins have come on gravel, and one of them on snow.
But the class he showed in Ypres and Spain this year did put him a step ahead of the rest of the 2021 pack on asphalt right now – and bodes well for his chances in the Monza finale. Team-mate Sordo, probably the closest thing to an asphalt-specialist left in the WRC, felt Neuville was on an unreachable level all weekend.
Neuville himself feels that Monza’s atypical route (even in its less circuit-heavy 2021 iteration) means Spain was the finale for this generation of World Rally Car on asphalt, and he absolutely made the most of it.
Evans has Ogier on the ropes (but too late)
Elfyn Evans was understandably muted at the finish, given he’d looked such a likely winner in the early running only to be left breathless by Neuville from Friday afternoon onwards.
And despite all his protestations that he’s ignoring the championship situation, he would also have been well aware that a much bigger points swing was possible had he held Neuville off given Sébastien Ogier was so much slower.
The fact we can even type a sentence like that is a real tribute to Evans’ progress, though. On both the super-fast gravel of Finland and the tricky asphalt of Spain, he’s been clearly faster than his legendary team-mate.
Unless things go drmatically wrong for Ogier at Monza, it won’t be enough. But that doesn’t make it any less impressive.
Sordo can handle pressure
Dani Sordo seemed pessimistic – in a relaxed way – about his hopes of beating Ogier to third going into the final day, despite the Toyota’s stall on the Salou superspecial bringing it right back into range.
He pointed out that his experience on these roads was no advantage given Ogier’s caliber, intimated Ogier had probably just been toying with him before mounting a Sunday charge and even dismissed his own chances with the phrase “he’s a world champion, I’m not”.
Well come Sunday afternoon, Sordo was on the Rally Spain podium. Ogier was not.
Carefree super-fast part-time 38-year-old Sordo is a class act, and a world ahead of his mid-20s overshadowed Citroën sidekick self.
If 2022 is going to be his WRC swansong, we – and Hyundai – should relish him while he’s still in the field.
Adamo also had some typically emotive words on Sordo’s Sunday performance, which he shared with DirtFish.
“If there is someone in the service park that came to me and said this morning ‘I was sure Dani would stay in front of Ogier, and even extend the lead’. Sorry, I spit in their eyes, because no one this morning was believing he could have done.
“But Dani today has done something that I was not seeing in many years. When he has to catch, maybe he’s better. When he’s under pressure sometimes it’s different. But Dani today has done something amazing, and Cándido [Carrera, co-driver] with him I think it’s raised his spirit and they’ve done an amazing job.
“In the last stage with the damp like this I was very, very worried because for sure he’s a smart guy, ‘Mr Consistency’. Instead he did something amazing. So we have as Hyundai to thank him.”