Sébastien Ogier was able to resist the pressure from his Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT colleague Kalle Rovanperä to hold a slender lead following a gripping opening to RallyRACC Catalunya-Costa Daurada Rally de España today (Friday).
It was a case of old champion versus new champion as Ogier – an eight-time world title winner between 2013 and 2021 – and Rovanperä – who claimed this year’s crown with two rounds to spare – traded seconds across eight pulsating asphalt stages in the Costa Daurada hills.
Rovanperä was initially imperious and led the way after two stages. He relinquished the top spot at Les Garrigues Altes 1, however, after dropping 8.2s to his GR Yaris Rally1 team-mate while fighting a bout of understeer.
Ogier surrendered his leading position to Hyundai Motorsport’s Thierry Neuville just before the day’s midpoint but emerged from service fighting, immediately snatching back top spot from Neuville.
Coming under increasing pressure from Rovanperä, who claimed back-to-back stage wins on SS6 and SS7, the Frenchman responded in the finale – edging the 22-year-old by 1.2s to end the day 4.8s clear.
“It’s been a good day and I’m really happy,” reflected Ogier. “I was a bit scared to be seventh on the road today with the amount of cuts that we had to go through, but we had a really good feeling in the car.
“So far, so good. Obviously 4.8 seconds is not a lot so we will need to keep on pushing hard tomorrow. May the best man win!”
A frustrated Neuville – twice a winner in Spain – completes the overnight top three 7.7s behind Rovanperä. He lacked the pace to threaten the leading pair in the afternoon and was hesitant to push too hard for fear of his i20 N Rally1 sliding too much.
“We do not have the speed and, to be honest, I can’t really push to the maximum,” he explained. “The car starts to slide and it’s difficult to know where to improve.”
Neuville’s team-mate Ott Tänak is 7.5s further down in fourth overall ahead of Dani Sordo’s similar Hyundai. It was a fraught day for the pair, with Tänak hit by hybrid unit faults and an alternator belt failure while Sordo damaged his front-left tyre on SS7.
Sordo wasn’t the only driver to suffer tyre issues. Elfyn Evans suffered the same outcome after hitting exactly the same rock, as did the Welshman’s Toyota team-mate Takamoto Katsuta. The pair arrived back to service in sixth and eighth respectively, sandwiching the M-Sport Ford Puma of Craig Breen.
Adrien Fourmaux made a sensible start to his first FIA World Rally Championship outing since August and trails Katsuta by just 2.7s at the overnight halt in Salou. Gus Greensmith, also driving a Puma, completes the top 10 another Puma, 7.5s in arrears.
In FIA WRC2 Open, Teemu Suninen (Hyundai Motorsport N) leads Toksport Škoda driver Nikolay Gryazin by 12.7s with Yohan Rossel third in a PH Sport Citroën C3 Rally2. Gryazin heads Emil Lindholm in WRC2 Junior by 47.8s after the Finn was delayed by a damaged tyre and a spin. Armin Kremer tops the WRC Masters order ahead of early leader Mauro Miele by a mere 8.6s. Ford Fiesta Rally3 pilot Jan Černý remains the driver to beat in FIA WRC3. Emmanuel Guigou was holding a comfortable advantage in the FIA RGT Cup after seven stages in his Alpine A110.
Crews are familiar with Saturday’s route. The unchanged Savalla (13.93 kilometres) and the longest stage of the rally, El Montmell (24.18 kilometres), sandwich Querol-Les Pobles (20.19 kilometres), which opens with a new three-kilometre section.
Service at Salou’s PortAventura World theme park separates morning and afternoon runs over the same roads before the day ends with the popular 2.15-kilometre street stage along Salou’s seafront. The seven stages total 118.75 kilometres.