BRENTWOOD, England - The FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) ventures to the only true mixed-surface event of the season at RallyRACC Rally de España this weekend, and 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.
As the only round of the season to combine both asphalt and gravel stages, the three-day fixture poses a real challenge for the technicians and crews alike. Saturday evening will see M-Sport’s expert team convert all six Qatari-liveried Fiestas from their asphalt to gravel specification in just 75 minutes.
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.