Sébastien Ogier overcame appalling conditions to lead RallyRACC Catalunya - Rally de España at the midpoint of Friday’s first full day despite failing to win any of the three rain-soaked gravel speed tests.
Stage info: SS3 / SS4
SS3: Bot 1, 6.50km
Friday’s shortest test starts in the village of Bot and climbs all the way until a final asphalt section that heads downhill into the finish outside Gandesa. The initial gravel is firm and wide, but there are a couple of off-camber corners that might trap drivers. The first part is slow and twisty, but the second part is quicker with a series of fast bends near the finish. Identical to the stage used in 2015.
SS4: Terra Alta 1, 38.95km
Terra Alta is the longest and toughest stage of the rally. A new 3.27km section at the start leads into Vilalba del Arcs, before the stage heads away through a well-known zig-zag which offers great views of the village and its bell tower in the background. It is mostly gravel but drivers face five surface changes, including an incredibly twisty and undulating 6km asphalt section in the middle and a tight asphalt hairpin near the finish on tyres well-used by the gravel.
The Frenchman, bidding to secure a fourth consecutive world title in his Volkswagen Polo R, headed Thierry Neuville by 4.4sec. Jari-Matti Latvala recovered well from a lacklustre start last night to complete the top three, a further 1.3sec behind.
Torrential rain continued to hinder the drivers in the hills west of Salou. Mud and standing water made aquaplaning a constant threat but Ogier’s consistency put him top of the standings after Neuville briefly led.
He was second in both the short Bot and the Terra Alta tests. “So far it has been a really difficult rally,” he said. “There’s a lot of standing water and in these conditions I can’t really make a difference.”
Neuville’s reign at the top was a brief one. He led after SS2, only to be demoted on the next test, but he was happy despite the rear of his Hyundai i20 kicking him out of the ruts.
Latvala dropped 12sec in last night’s Barcelona curtain-raiser. However, the Finn was revitalised and went quickest in both Bot and Terra Alta to charge up to third.
Home hero Dani Sordo was fourth in an i20, the Spaniard describing the conditions as ‘unbelievable’. Third in Terra Alta promoted him 3.3sec ahead of Andreas Mikkelsen’s Polo R, the Norwegian cautious through the final 10km after believing he had a puncture.
Hayden Paddon completed the top six but still struggled with engine problems. “Especially on the uphill asphalt section we’ve got no throttle response. I put my foot down to go and there’s nobody at home. I’m surprised not to have lost more time,” he said.
Mads Østberg was seventh and happier that the vibration which bothered him earlier had disappeared. Craig Breen held eighth, despite a 10sec penalty for arriving late at SS4 after a ‘sluggish’ tyre change, with Kris Meeke and Ott Tänak completing the leaderboard.