Well, doesn’t this feel familiar? Sébastien Ogier scored a commanding victory in Spain at the wheel of a Toyota, showing the rest of the field a clean set of heels.
With road order dynamics never really coming strongly into play, the competitive order was established quickly and remained that way until the end – not throwing up too many surprises in the process.
That, as we’ll discover, was a bit of a disappointment for many of the crews in Spain. They needed a change of pace – and they didn’t get it.
Here’s what we learned from Rally Spain 2022:
Ogier is still in his prime
He was the pacesetter on the Monte Carlo Rally, even if a puncture stopped him from winning. But that was no surprise – it was only two months after he’d taken his eighth world title, the first rally back after the 2021 season finale. He was still fresh and fully up to speed.
Portugal raised a question mark. He’d not been particularly rapid on the opening day and though his Friday retirement was due to a double puncture, he then crashed after losing concentration momentarily the next day.
Was rotating in and out of the Yaris causing Ogier to lose his sharpness? Had he lost his edge?
No, appears to be the answer.
Spain was a reminder that Ogier hasn’t suddenly lost any of the speed that earned him those eight world titles. Ogier bested Rovanperä in a straight fight, then kept Thierry Neuville at arm’s length after the new world champion made a hash of his boost settings before El Montmell and fallen back.
It would appear unwise to bet against Ogier becoming the third driver this year to take back-to-back WRC wins. Not after the form he showed last weekend.
M-Sport is stuck between a rock and a hard place
It’s hard not to tread on old ground when it comes to M-Sport. It’s been the same thing week in, week out. So much promise. So much potential. So little to show for it.
Gus Greensmith crashed for the second rally in a row. Craig Breen started the weekend completely lost with his Ford Puma’s setup, taking the entire rally to find something that cured his chronic understeer. All the Toyotas and Hyundais finished ahead of the best-placed Puma.
What’s worse is there seems to be very little they can do about it. What is there left to change?
Team owner Malcolm Wilson is (understandably) starting to sound like he’s talking on a loop. Mentioning the Monte. Mentioning how Sébastien Loeb has led every time he’s been in the car. And then this line: “We feel we’ve definitely built the best car we’ve ever built in the Puma.”
Maybe Loeb’s cameos with M-Sport are as painful as they are a source of optimism, in a way. We may never have truly known the Puma’s potential this season without him. Maybe this season would have hurt less, felt less punishing, not knowing what could have been if a world champion had been in a Puma all year long.
But they do know. And that’s a double-edged sword, considering that it appears there’s very little they can do to change the tide.
Short of Wilson robbing a bank to pay the salary of a world champion for a whole season, there is no other obvious fix. M-Sport are a hardworking, industrious bunch – but throwing money at a problem to make it go away is the one weapon they don’t have in their arsenal.
Craig Breen needs 2022 to be over already
There’s still one rally to go in the 2022 season but Breen appears mentally finished for the year. Not because he doesn’t care, or that he doesn’t want to put in the effort – but exactly because the opposite is true.
He’s in a dangerous place right now. His language on Sunday was defeatist – that no matter what he does, or how hard he tries, it won’t matter in the end because something is guaranteed to go wrong. If he doesn’t make a mistake, something else will contrive to ruin his rally – as was the case here, when a broken front-left wheel sent him up a bank.
Looking at the drivers’ championship standings and seeing part-timer Ogier leapfrog him after Spain won’t have helped either.
There is only so much misery a person can put up with. Everyone has a breaking point. Breen appears to be teetering on the absolute edge of his. A mental reset and starting from zero is probably what he craves – and needs.
It says a lot that Breen is crying out for a rally where nothing goes wrong. Not a rally where he’s fighting for a win, or a podium. Just a rally with no crashes and nothing breaking. That such an outcome appears to be bordering on optimism shows how keen Breen must be to see January 1, 2023 roll around.
Sordo still has something left to give
Will Dani Sordo show up on a WRC round again after Japan? He says the answer is not yet known. And on the face of it, bringing his podium streak to an end with a fifth place on his home event, unable to keep up with his team-mates, would suggest that he’s lost some of his edge this season.
Certainly, he admitted as much himself, conceding that some of his podiums this season had been gifted to him by others making mistakes. I want to fight for podiums, not wait for them to fall in my lap, was his message after Greece.
But then El Montmell rolled around. He obliterated the entire field, putting it all on the line. Reliable points scorer reputation be damned, it was time to “push like hell”.
Yes, it’s one stage. But it was a Sordo that had rediscovered his mojo, one that had finally got the car to drive and respond in a way he wanted it to. And this Sordo, he reminded us all, can take an eight-time world champion to the cleaners.
Evans needs to be more like Tänak
Only twice did Elfyn Evans’ presence on the leaderboard really register – when he was losing lots of time because he’d picked up punctures. Friday afternoon and Sunday morning were the most significant moments of his rally – not because of what he had done but what had been done to him.
From start to finish he seemed lost. He declared himself unable to get comfortable with his car. He was going around in circles on setup.
Evans wasn’t the only one, though. There were similar complaints at Hyundai from Ott Tänak. He huffed and puffed, fighting a car he didn’t understand the behavior of and couldn’t tune to suit him. He pushed beyond his comfort zone – and very nearly paid the price when he went off the road on El Montmell, through the long grass and set his front-left wheel on fire.
When push has come to shove, Tänak has been able to dig deep and find something repeatedly. Evans hasn’t been able to do the same
Dragging his i20 N Rally1 kicking and screaming along the stages paid off, though. Tänak ended the rally only 9.5s from the podium. Take Evans’ puncture dramas out of the equation and he was almost half a minute slower than the 2019 world champion.
And we all remember that drive on Rally Finland. Tänak was willing to push to the point of scaring himself straight – and he reaped the rewards for doing so with a completely unexpected victory.
When push has come to shove, Tänak has been able to dig deep and find something repeatedly. Evans hasn’t been able to do the same.
Team principal Jari-Matti Latvala’s instructions to Evans were clear – get on the podium in the last two rounds. He wasn’t even close on the first one. At least Tänak was at the races.
Mikkelsen can’t be counted out of WRC2 title fight
Emil Lindholm vs Kajetan Kajetanowicz. That’s the battle for WRC2 title honors we all thought we’d get.
But there’s an unexpected twist. It was almost a given that, surely, with Andreas Mikkelsen stuck with a non-finish and and eighth place in his final points tally, one of them would leave Spain ahead of the reigning world champion in the points, taking him out of the title equation completely.
And yet, here we are, with one round left and Mikkelsen still sits atop the standings, all while the rules force him to sit at home and twiddle his thumbs, barred from attempting any more rounds in 2022.
Lindholm was fast in Spain. But there were unforced errors. He was helped by Kajetanowicz not even really being at the races, consistently the seventh-fastest driver in the field until Stéphane Sarrazin crashed out. And he too made an error, sliding off into a field after a polluted cut.
Mikkelsen has to sit and wait and see if his slender five-point lead is usurped by someone in Japan. On paper it surely should be.
But when dropped scores come into play Kajetanowicz needs to score 14 points in Japan just to surpass Mikkelsen, never mind beat Lindholm. Lindholm has it slightly easier, needing only nine points to overtake Mikkelsen’s total.
Lindholm scored 15 in Spain, Kajetanowicz only eight.
Just look at some of the other names on the Japan entry and you’ll see those two aren’t automatically going to get the points they need just by getting to the finish a-la Driving Miss Daisy. Spain winner Teemu Suninen is there; so too Sami Pajari, Grégoire Munster, Bruno Bulacia, and sometime Subaru works driver Toshi Arai.
Turning up and driving to the finish won’t work. They need to put the foot to the floor. And when they did that in Spain, things started to go awry.
It’s still a three-way fight, even if one of the contenders isn’t allowed to show up.