As if the World Rally Championship wasn’t exciting enough this year, leave it to the series’ annual visit to Spain to make things even more interesting.
Nine-time champion Sebastien Loeb returns to the Citroen Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team. Ken Block makes his first WRC appearance since finishing 12th here in Spain four years ago. And Volkswagen Motorsport debuts its Polo GTI R5, a future WRC-2 customer car, with a factory effort and two WRC-caliber drivers to run it: 2003 World Champion Petter Solberg and longtime M-Sport Ford WRT racer Eric Camilli.
And that’s not even touching on the intense three-way championship battle we’ve got going on yet.
Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT’s Thierry Neuville still leads the point standings with 189, but his advantage over five-time defending champion Sebastien Ogier is down to seven after Ogier delivered a home victory to M-Sport at Wales Rally GB earlier in the month. The event had been Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT driver Ott Tanak’s to lose, as the Estonian looked to take the points lead, but radiator damage ended his charge for the win; he remains in the hunt at 21 points back, but with just two rounds left, will likely need similar misfortune to befall Neuville and Ogier to take his first WRC title.
The manufacturer’s championship is even closer. Toyota leads Hyundai by 20 points, and M-Sport Ford by 44, as the two main WRC titles might be split for the first time since 2007. Strong performances from the entire Toyota squad, including dual podiums by Jari-Matti Latvala and Esapekka Lappi in Wales, have elevated them to the top spot. Toyota has only missed the podium in two of 11 rounds and has put two cars on the podium five times in 2018, including in each of the last four rounds.
They’ll all take on one of the most interesting events on the WRC calendar, as the Spanish event mixes both tarmac and gravel in its 18 stages. The 76 competitors entered in the event over the WRC, WRC-2, and WRC-3 classes will cover 331.58 racing kilometers (206.03 miles) starting with Thursday’s special stage in Barcelona. The event ends on Sunday with the Power Stage at Santa Marina, won last year by Hyundai’s Dani Sordo.
Defending WRC event winner Kris Meeke won’t compete as he continues to prepare for his 2019 return to the series with Toyota, while defending WRC-2 winner Teemu Suninen has moved up to M-Sport’s WRC effort and will look to rebound from a DNF in Wales. Similarly, last year’s WRC-3 winner Nil Solans will move up to WRC-2, but will do so with a new co-driver: Marc Marti, the longtime navigator for both the legendary Carlos Sainz and later his protege Sordo.