For a start, there was Sebastien Loeb. Throughout the business of securing victory number 76, it was easy to overlook the fact that we were actually witnessing the end of an era. For Spain marks the end of Loeb’s last full season in the WRC, but because he’s got a full schedule of testing and promotional appearances until the end of the year, followed by Rallye Monte-Carlo and possibly four more in 2013, the true reality that it’s all over probably won’t hit him until some time in mid-February.
Of course, this was his decision and he says he’s not changing his mind. But he’s safe in the knowledge that if - however unlikely it seems - he were to have a re-think, there will be no harm done for at least another three months. And that’s a very comforting security blanket to have wrapped around you.
For M-Sport and Jari-Matti Latvala, it was a slightly different feeling - which probably distracted everyone from the amazing fact that Latvala came within just seven seconds of beating Loeb on asphalt. It was undoubtedly the Finn’s best performance on asphalt yet (and yes, we know we also said that after Rallye de France Alsace) but that only underlines how he is getting better and better all the time.
Yet it wasn’t unalloyed joy for Latvala, with the departure of Ford as a manufacturer team after 16 great years with M-Sport. The partnership yielded 52 wins and a record-breaking 152 consecutive points finishes (dating back to Monte Carlo in 2002). But that’s not the most important thing that M-Sport and Ford brought to the WRC: instead they leave a legacy of awe-inspiring memories from colossal giants of the championship - people like Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz - combined with promising young talents who went on to become heroes: people like Petter Solberg, Mikko Hirvonen (who is actually Ford’s most successful driver in the WRC with 14 wins) and of course Latvala.
If the 27-year-old’s performance in Spain was anything to go by, he’ll give Sebastien Ogier something serious to think about next year at Volkswagen. There’s no number one and number two in the German squad but usually the current incumbent - in this case Ogier - has the psychological upper hand and he’s also probably not above playing one or two little mind games.
But team principal Jost Capito has promised to put his arm around Latvala in the hope that it will yield consistent results. Depending on the virtuosity of Capito’s cuddling technique, Latvala may well be unstoppable next year. But as even Hirvonen - by now practically an honorary Frenchman - says, a huge part of his heart will always be with Ford. If you don’t understand why, go and drive a Mk II Escort for a bit.
However, rather than goodbye it’s more an au revoir for the big Blue Oval. There will be M-Sport entered Fiesta WRCs on the opening round of the championship in Monte Carlo next year - and it would take a hard-hearted person (or possibly Sebastien Loeb) not to will one of them to win. It’s worth remembering that the last time Ford won the drivers’ championship was with a privateer team in 1981...
The more intriguing question is who will be driving them. Citroen team boss Yves Matton said that either Dani Sordo or Mads Ostberg will be Hirvonen’s team-mate next year and it’s a fair guess to presume whichever one doesn’t get the gig will end up in a Fiesta next year - possibly alongside Petter Solberg. In the end, it will come down to that tried and trusted consumer gauge: the quality-price ratio.
What team boss Malcolm Wilson needs is the best possible drivers who can bring the most amount of backing to the team: a mission that is not as impossible as it sounds, as the most talented drivers generally tend to attract the best sponsorship.
But whichever car he ends up in, one of the people who will be feeling most gutted after Spain is local hero Sordo. He won more stages than anyone else on his home event (six) and had it not been for an off on the opening day and an engine misfire on day two, he would have been a real contender for victory. In fact, had things worked out just slightly differently, MINI and Sordo could well have been genuine championship challengers in 2014.
Sordo’s direct rival for the coveted Citroen DS3 seat, Ostberg, had a storming rally too - especially on Friday, when the wet conditions were more reminiscent of Sepang than Salou. Without an incorrect tyre choice and spin on Saturday morning, it would have been fascinating to see how long the Norwegian could have hung onto the lead for. Keeping Loeb and Latvala at bay would have been a very big ask - but a podium and the chance to finish third in the championship would have been entirely possible.
There are two more contenders for the most impressive drive of the rally though (and we’re going to leave Loeb out of this, because we take his brilliance for granted these days).
Firstly, Jarkko Nikara. The easy-going and trimly-bearded Finn shot to prominence in 2009 as a Pirelli Star Driver who was scared of nothing - including accidents. Now he has tempered that blinding speed with a bit of consistency and the result was fifth on his MINI debut, despite only a handful of kilometres of testing before the start. Both he and the car really are that good.
However, the star of the rally was almost certainly newly-crowned Super 2000 world champion, Craig Breen. Having endured an emotional rollercoaster of a year, with the death of his friend and co-driver Gareth Roberts, the courage and conviction he displayed to clinch the title with an amazing drive to sixth overall in a Ford Fiesta S2000 was breath taking. Even P-G Andersson, who finished second in the S2000 standings, said that he would fight hard but he would rather his rival won the title. And that’s not only something you don’t hear very often, but also a measure of what a great sportsman P-G is too.