The only mixed surface rally of the season has shifted weight from tarmac onto gravel, and brought back the opening super special. What else has changed and what has not?
In the past all of Rally Portugal, Rally San Remo and Rally Catalunya have been mixed surface events. As of late, only Catalunya has retained the classic format which is problematic in the high costs of today’s rallies.
Since 2014 the structure has remained the same – gravel stages on Friday, then a long service break for changing into tarmac setup and tarmac for Saturday and Sunday. In order to emphasize the mixed surface nature, one of the gravel stages contains a lengthy tarmac section and the opening tarmac super special is driven on gravel tyres. In addition to this, the Saturday night super special had last year eventually a lot of gravel on top of the tarmac.
Compared to the other tarmac rallies of the season, the road surface of Catalunya is considered to be the smoothest and most racing track like, compared to the rougher roads of Corsica or the narrow vineyard paths and military range concrete surfaces of Rally Deutschland.
The Barcelona super special has returned onto the itinerary, whereas last year there was no opening super special at all. The stage itself is unchanged from past, being a typical artificial street stage driven between narrow paths made of barriers with lots of hairpins, chicanes, multiple laps and donuts. I don’t have much love for this stuff.
Friday – the gravel stages
The gravel roads in Catalunya are a bit similar to Rally Portugal or the Tuscan gravel roads used in San Remo years ago. They are narrow but not very rough or technical and there’s a lot of loose gravel.
For a few years the gravel stages have remained the same but this year offers some updates. In fact, none of last year’s gravel stage titles are present on the itinerary now. But on a closer look, the biggest change is reversing most of the stages – and at the same time renaming them, like Rally Catalunya often does.
Gandesa is essentially the same stage as Bot from last year, but driven into the opposite direction. The same stage was also run from 2012 to 2014. It also has a rough tarmac section at the very beginning for about 700 metres.
Similarly, Pesells, the second stage of the loop is now the same as between 2012 and 2014. It shares the last 10 km with Caseres from the past years but has a different beginning section. Caseres or Pesells has usually been the fastest gravel stage of the rally.
Last year Caseres caused instant retirements through driving errors for the WRC2 drivers Fabio Andolfi, Takamoto Katsuta and Gus Greensmith. Two years ago, the same happened to Jari-Matti Latvala, whereas Kris Meeke had a quick roll that didn’t even drop him from the top 10.
Kris Meeke had again problems on this stage last year, but this time it was only a spin on the last hairpin of the stage, costing him the stage win. The same hairpin ending will be used on the Pesells stage this year.
Finally, the 39 km stage La Fatarella – Vilalba known previously as Terra Alta concludes the loop. It has never driven before in this direction except for the tarmac section as a part of a tarmac stage Riba-roja d’Ebre in 2012.
At 28 km the route of the stage deviates onto a different path than last year, but joins last year’s start at 35 km in the same direction. The last 2 km of the deviating path was also a part of the beginning of the stage in 2012.
This is the most mixed surface stage of the whole WRC season, containing a seven km tarmac section in the middle, occurring now at 12 km into the stage. This will make tyre management important, as the tarmac will eat the gravel tyres more quickly with the car sliding on the gravel suspension.
The added length of Pesells means that the rally has now 145 km of gravel stages as opposed to the 115 of last year. Percentually this is a shift from 37% to 44%, as the total length of the rally is also increased from 312 km to 331 km, but it’s the highest percentage of gravel in the modern format of the rally.
Saturday – fast tarmac
Similarly as Friday, the order of the stages is also reversed for Saturday. Now the tarmac action starts with Savallà, a new stage introduced last year and driven similarly this year. This stage was remembered for the unlucky Hyundai drivers Dani Sordo and Andreas Mikkelsen breaking their steerings in the same corner.
Meanwhile, Querol is now driven again into the direction used in 2016 and many years before, whereas it was last year run in reverse as El Pont d’Armentera. The loop is then completed by the longest tarmac stage of the rally, a Catalunya staple El Montmell, driven similarly to last year.
These three stages were the fastest ones of the rally last year, with winning average speeds of 113-118 km/h. It’s also interesting that all the tarmac stages were slower on the second run, with many of the drivers mentioning dirt being pulled onto the road.
The day is concluded with a super special at Salou. It is driven on the streets and parking lots near the beach and parts of it are on cobblestones and sandy gravel. The tarmac road near the beach also gets very sandy and slippery. Most of the route is created artificially by concrete barriers.
Sunday – slower tarmac
Sunday consists of the infamous tarmac stages of Riudecanyes and Santa Marina, in the exact same way as last year. The only difference for this year is dropping the third stage of the loop, most likely to balance the total rally length extended by the gravel stages. It’s also remarkable that now there’s a visit to the service park between the stages, whereas last year the drivers did all of the six stages without service.
Riudecanyes contains an infamous roundabout in the middle of the stage. Doing donuts is common in today’s super specials where only one car is on the stage at a time, but this roundabout appears 4 km into the stage. Anything could happen on the section before it, someone could have a puncture or go off and lose time and thus be caught by another car. I’m not sure if the organizers have taken this into account at all. In my opinion this kind of showboating does not belong to rallying.
In contrast to the Saturday stages, the Sunday ones seem to be considerably slower. Especially Riudecanyes’s winning average speed was as low as 95 km/h, Santa Marina being halfway between that and the Saturday stages pace-wise.
Last year Esapekka Lappi’s rally ended with a crash into an Armco barrier on the Riudecanyes stage. Meanwhile, Andreas Mikkelsen had to tackle the stage with his bonnet open and Kris Meeke managed to win the stage even though he stalled on the aforementioned roundabout. But the Santa Marina stage was crucial to the championship with Thierry Neuville breaking his front suspension into a stone on the side of the road and it was game over.
With the gravel stages having more percentual length and more new sections, we could expect interesting things to happen there. Meanwhile, the smoother tarmac will also present better chances for old Karting drivers such as Esapekka Lappi and Teemu Suninen, although both are still rookies on this surface, but we already saw Lappi’s speed on the smoother stages of Corsica and Suninen won WRC2 here last year.
See the whole map in detail at rally-maps.com.
The first day is driven on gravel with the usual road sweeping duties for the first cars. Last year Andreas Mikkelsen took full advantage of his good starting position, although Sebastien Ogier, starting first on the road, was only 1.4 s behind, thanks to his excellent tyre saving skills.
We could see some good pace from the Toyota trio on the gravel stages, now that Neuville and Ogier will sweep the road for them. Another possible leader after the first day could be the old master Sebastien Loeb, starting as the last WRC car thanks to his limited program.
Catalunya is run this year later than previously. This could also make the weather conditions more wet and thus affect the road order, as sweeping won’t be an issue and surprising rains mid-stage can make the conditions unequal between the drivers.
Here’s Dani Sordo doing the Santa Marina stage 10 years ago into the opposite direction
I have now completed archiving almost all the WRC-era Rally Catalunya maps into Rally-Maps.com. Only the two first mixed surface editions are missing, but you can start from the first all-tarmac edition in 1993 and go further from there. Be also sure to use the related stages function to see how the stages have been used and changed throughout the years.
Cover image by Tapio Lehtonen.