As the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) ventures to the only true mixed-surface event of the season at RallyRACC Rally de España, Qatar M-Sport will showcase six Ford Fiestas on the combination stages. The Ford Fiesta RS WRCs of Mads Østberg, Evgeny Novikov, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Thierry Neuville will be joined by newcomer Hayden Paddon and the Ford Fiesta R5 of Elfyn Evans.
But the real challenge for the drivers comes on Sunday morning as they strive to get back into the rhythm of gravel rallying. Being off the pace and out of sync through the final speed tests can cost valuable seconds, so the Qatar M-Sport crews will need to be on top of their game from the first loose-surface kilometre.
Back on form following an encouraging drive on the sealed-surface roads of Rallye de France-Alsace, Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team’s Østberg will be looking to do just that. The Norwegian made strides on the black-top stages of Alsace and will be looking for more of the same in Spain.
Partnered by Swedish co-driver Jonas Andersson, Østberg finished fourth overall at the event last year and will be looking for another top-five result next week.
Another driver keen to build on his development at the last outing in France is Østberg’s team mate, Novikov. The Russian combined his clear speed with a cautious approach on the French asphalt which resulted in a strong top-five finish. Partnered by Austrian co-driver Ilka Minor, the pairing will be keen to put in a similar performance in Spain.
Fresh from wrapping up his ninth FIA Middle East Rally Championship, Al-Attiyah will make a welcome return to the Qatar World Rally Team next week. Despite his vast experience in the WRC, it might surprise some to hear that the Qatari has only contested the Spanish event on one previous occasion – piloting a Ford Fiesta S2000 to the runner-up spot in the S-WRC series in 2011.
Joined by co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini, the pairing will be looking for another successful weekend. Having secured victory on the combination stages of Rally Cyprus, the duo are well placed to tackle a second mixed-surface event in succession and capable of securing a fourth top-five result of the year. Al-Attiyah’s team-mate, Neuville, came tantalisingly close to securing a maiden WRC victory in France earlier this month – were it not for a puncture on the penultimate day. That said, the Belgian certainly proved that his speed has the potential to challenge for rally wins.
Unfortunately, that first victory will have to wait, but there would be few to bet against it coming to fruition in Spain. The Belgian has confidence and momentum on his side, and although admittedly focused on maintaining his second place in the championship, he and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul have already proven themselves – and the Fiesta RS WRC – to be a highly competitive combination on both asphalt and gravel.
Making their debut in a new generation world rally car, New Zealand’s finest – Paddon and co-driver John Kennard – will take to the wheel of the Fiesta RS WRC for the first time in competition next week. Driving for the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team, the pairing have high hopes and their skill behind the wheel could well see them challenge the front-runners on individual stage times.
Elsewhere, in the WRC 2 category, Evans and co-driver Daniel Barritt are keen to take the fight to rivals Robert Kubica and Maciek Baran. The pairing have already proven that they have the speed to take on the ex-Formula One ace on asphalt as well as gravel and Evans is eager to make the most of what is his last opportunity to challenge the Pole in direct competition this year.
Mads Østberg said:
“Our confidence on Tarmac is certainly improving. I felt that the driving was getting a lot better in France and we progressed really well until we hit some troubles on the final day. I’m hoping to carry on that development next week and just keep building the confidence with each new kilometre.
“I have some new ‘sports’ glasses for this event too. In France, it was the first time for me wearing glasses whilst driving for a really long time, so it took a while to get used to. I used them in testing this week and it was a lot better so I hope that will help us too.
“I am really looking forward to the gravel stages on Sunday. It’s a big change and a big challenge. With almost two full events and all the testing on Tarmac, we need to be able to adjust quickly to the change in grip and also the speed that we carry into the corners. When making such a dramatic switch from one surface to another, it is so easy to make a mistake.”
Evgeny Novikov said:
“We had quite a good rally in France, so I’m hoping that we will be able to continue our progress next week. In Australia, we just concentrated on getting through all the stages, but we increased the speed in France and got a good top-five result. I think that was the best we could have done that weekend, so we’ll be looking to do at least the same again in Spain.
“I like this rally, but it is completely different to the other events because we will be competing on both asphalt and gravel stages. The key is to keep the momentum high as you go into the gravel tests on the final day. You need to make sure your car is well set-up for all of the different stages and also that you are in the right frame of mind to tackle each surface.”
Nasser Al-Attiyah said:
“Fresh from securing a ninth title in the Middle East means that Giovanni [Bernacchini] and I will be full of confidence going to Spain next week. It was a fantastic result by the whole team and the championship is very important for me, Giovanni, the team, Qatar and all of our sponsors and supporters who have been behind us all the way.
“Rally Cyprus was a mixed-surface event like Spain, so I hope that we will have a good rhythm going into this event. We know that the car is competitive on all surfaces so I am sure that all of the Qatar team will be able to challenge for some very good results.”
Thierry Neuville said:
“As the only mixed-surface event on the calendar, this rally is certainly a lot different to what we are used to. Although we’ll only be testing on asphalt, we have good experience from last year and we know from this year that we can be competitive on both surfaces.
“For a driver, the most difficult aspect is to ensure you make a swift transition from the Tarmac to gravel stages. You need to be confident in your driving and find a good rhythm. If you are not up to speed on Sunday, you can easily lose ten to fifteen seconds which – as we saw with the field being so close in France – can make all the difference.
“Our aim again is to maintain second place in the championship. We’ve seen that we can challenge for victory on many surfaces, so we will push from the beginning, but we also need to keep the championship in mind. We need to finish this event strongly, but if we are still in a position to fight for the victory on Sunday, then we will start to take a few more risks.”
Hayden Paddon said:
“It’s certainly going to be a very exciting event for us – it’s pretty amazing to have an opportunity to drive a world rally car for the first time in competition! Obviously, at the same time, that brings a lot of pressure, but we’ll put that to the back of our minds and just concentrate on doing the best job we can.
“Preparation wise, John [Kennard, co-driver] and I are lucky enough to have competed in Spain a couple of times before. We’re just working on the pacenotes and being as comfortable as we can before the start of the rally.
“Generally, the switch from asphalt to gravel is a real challenge for the drivers as you need to be able to adapt your driving style pretty quickly. For me, for example, I’ll be going from right-foot braking to left-foot braking over the course of just a few hours. That aside, next week will give us the perfect opportunity to show what we can do on both surfaces.”
Elfyn Evans said:
“The real challenge of Rally de España is ensuring that you have the momentum and the rhythm to keep the speed as we move from asphalt to gravel. There is the potential to lose a lot of time on Sunday morning, so all the crews need to ensure that their confidence is high when the surface changes.
“The ‘Terra Alta’ stage [SS12 and SS15] also includes a really tricky Tarmac section which could pose a bit of a challenge. Your pacenotes need to be spot on in there and you need to really concentrate. Especially if it’s dry, you also need to make sure that you look after the gravel tyres.
“It would be nice to beat Robert [Kubica] at least once this year! I think we have proven that we have the speed to challenge him on both surfaces; it’s just a case of pulling everything together and having a perfect rally. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”