The man who engraves the Rally de Espana winner's trophy hasn't had much variety in his work for the last eight years, but that's guaranteed to change at this year's event, which gets underway on 24 October.
Citroen and Sebastien Loeb have been the dominant force in Spain since 2005, with the French combination notching up a remarkable eight consecutive victories. Now, three weeks after Loeb’s WRC retirement, there are plenty of contenders eager to take his place.
Top of the list must be Volkswagen’s Sebastien Ogier, who will start his first event as the new World Rally Champion. Apart from Loeb, Ogier is the only driver to have won on both gravel and asphalt this season, so he’s unlikely to be fazed by the rally’s unique mixed-surface format.
Ogier will also be keen to make amends for a disappointing finishing record in Spain. In 2011 he was fifth before an engine-related problem forced him to retire his Citroen DS3 WRC on the penultimate stage. In 2012 he retired his Skoda Fabia S2000 in similar circumstances, when engine failure put him out as he neared Salou ahead of Friday night’s street stage in the town.
We reckon Ogier’s closest challenger this week will be local hero Dani Sordo. After taking his maiden WRC win in Germany, the Spaniard finished as runner-up at the Rallye de France and will arrive at his favourite round of the championship determined to continue this excellent run of form. A five-time podium-finisher in Spain, Sordo made his WRC debut on the rally in 2003 and can count on fanatical support from his legions of Spanish fans.
Next up are the trio of Thierry Neuville, Jari-Matti Latvala and Mikko Hirvonen. Currently second in the drivers’ championship, Neuville has been a revelation on his most recent outings in his Qatar World Rally Team Ford Fiesta RS. Second at the rounds in Germany and Australia, and an early leader in France before a puncture, the Belgian has proved his pace on gravel and asphalt and his sights are set on a first win in the WRC.
Latvala meanwhile has an opportunity to fight for victory free from the possible constraints of team orders. With Ogier’s drivers’ title in the bag and Volkswagen needing just six points to wrap up the manufacturers title in Spain, team boss Jost Capito has assured Latvala - and team-mates Ogier and Andreas Mikkelsen - that they can each fight for the win. “They can do whatever they want and show what they are capable of. I love to see the competition!” Capito explained.
Citroen DS3 driver Hirvonen was the least competitive of the trio in France, where he lacked confidence on the muddy roads of the Alsace. However, with grip levels on the Costa Daurada roads expected to be more consistent than in France, Hirvonen is hoping to get back among the front-runners. Second on the Spanish round in 2011, and a podium finisher on four other occasions, he knows the event well.
Another driver to watch is Mads Ostberg. The Norwegian led Rally Spain 2012 after the opening day and went on to finish fourth. He has set himself a modest target of top five this year, but could do a lot better if he can find a comfortable set-up early on.
There are 13 World Rally Car drivers on the entry list, including New Zealand’s Hayden Paddon, who will make his class debut at the wheel of an M-Sport prepared Fiesta RS. Also in a Fiesta RS will be WRC 2 front-runner Abdulaziz Al Kuwari, who has earned a one-off upgrade from the RRC spec car he has campaigned this season.
Mikko Markkula will be back at Andreas Mikkelsen’s side in the Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC. The 32-year-old fractured two vertebrae in Finland, forcing him to miss the rallies in Germany, Australia and France.
Nassser Al-Attiyah, (Ford Fiesta RS) Evgeny Novikov, (Ford Fiesta RS) Martin Prokop, (Ford Fiesta RS) and Khalid Al Qassimi (Citroen DS3) complete the World Rally Car entries.
Aside from the WRC contenders, there is a full supporting cast of drivers in the WRC 2, WRC 3 and Junior WRC Championships. We’ll bring you separate category previews on wrc.com later this week.
Spain rewind: On this rally in 2012
Last year’s Rally de Espana was the setting for another farewell for Loeb, who marked his final outing as a full-time driver in the WRC with the 76th victory of his career.
After struggling for pace through Friday’s rain-hit, mainly gravel tests, Loeb moved in front on the asphalt of day two and remained at the head of the field thereafter in his Citroen DS3 WRC.
Latvala signed-off as a factory Ford driver in second with Hirvonen third in the second works Citroen. Ford privateer Ostberg led after day one but slipped back on day two with set-up issues and a costly spin, eventually finishing fourth, 9.6s behind Hirvonen. Jarkko Nikara moved up to a fine fifth after Ott Tanak and Hans Weijs both crashed out.
Sordo battled back to ninth following engine problems on the opening day. But it was a case of what might have been for the Spaniard, who won a total of six stages, including four on Sunday, in his Mini John Cooper Works.
Spain tyre facts
The only mixed-surface rally of the WRC season requires a unique combination of tyres. Here’s what the drivers have at their disposal: