Route Preview: Rally Catalunya 2019

Rally Catalunya is the only mixed surface rally of the season. It offers smooth flowing tarmac resembling racing circuits as well as sandy and technical gravel roads. For this year the route has remained almost unchanged from last year, with a new power stage.

Rally Catalunya has been a WRC round since 1991, when it was based in Lloret de Mar, north of Barcelona. The first two WRC years were mixed surface, but those gravel stages haven’t been used since then. For 1993 the gravel stages were dropped and replaced with one day of tarmac stages in the Tarragona area, where the rally is now based. The rally remained all tarmac until 2009.

In 2003 and 2004 there were no Tarragona stages driven at all, but in 2005 the rally relocated permanently to Tarragona, into the city of Salou. Gravel stages were brought back in 2010 for the opening day and the overall structure of the rally has remained similar since then except that in 2013 the gravel stages were driven on Sunday.

The gravel stages are similar to Portugal and Sardegna – usually technical regardless of the varying speed or road width. Each gravel stage also has some tarmac parts.

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Armco barriers prevent cutting on some corners. Photo by Richard Simpson / Flickr

Meanwhile, the tarmac stages are the smoothest and fastest tarmac roads of the season. They are mostly fast and flowing with plenty of room to make racing lines. The edges are sometimes smoothened with concrete but there’s still many places to cut and drag mud onto the road. Even the tighter corners and hairpins rarely require the use of handbrake unlike in Germany or Corsica.

One curious fact about Rally Catalunya is that the stage title often changes when the direction is reversed. Still, there isn’t a clear logic to how the names are picked.

It was just announced that Rally Catalunya is dropped from the 2020 calendar. It’s strongly believed to return in 2021 as an all-tarmac rally. The mixed surface element would have been a nice historic touch, but it’s obviously a challenge financially and logistically for the teams.

Cover image by Kyn_chung / Flickr

Thursday

The shakedown is driven at Salou. It starts on a soft gravel road which appears to have been ploughed into the soil, with banks on the side. It resembles Rally Argentina with a bumpy but fast feel and big ruts. Thierry Neuville turned his car over in the ruts last year.

After two almost rallycross-like long bends there’s a switch onto tarmac in the form of a roundabout. After almost completing a full circle there’s an exit to a narrow and quite worn tarmac road. It’s basically a straight road, but three sets of chicanes slow the pace down.

This is hands down the worst shakedown of the year. Only the first few hundred meters are proper driving, and even that road is nothing like Friday’s gravel stages. Meanwhile, the rest is more like a super special. The cars will have gravel setup for the shakedown so the tarmac section of the shakedown is only useful for the tarmac parts of the Friday gravel stages, not so much for the actual tarmac stages which will be driven with proper tarmac setup.

Weather forecast for the Salou shakedown

Every now and then Rally Catalunya has had an opening super special on the streets of Barcelona. However, this year it’s again omitted and the action won’t start before the Friday morning.

Friday

The Friday stages are driven on gravel. They are located West from Salou. This year the amount of gravel stages is 40% of the rally route, which is less than last year, but around the average of the past decade.

Gandesa is the first stage of the rally. It has featured in the rally every year since 2012, although the reverse direction versions have been labeled as Bot. This year’s version is the same as last year. It is the shortest non-super-special of the rally at length of 7 km.

This stage resembles Portugal more than the other Friday stages. It starts on a medium wide tarmac road with rough edges and gravel pulling onto the road from the insides of the corners.

The surface becomes suddenly gravel after 700 metres. The road is still medium wide, quite soft with some loose gravel on top. It’s quite technical regardless of the constant alternating between fast and slow sections. At 3.5 km into the stage Esapekka Lappi went into the bushes on a fast section, but this was due to issues with brakes.

At 4 km there’s a series of hairpins, partly on concrete surface. After this the road is a bit narrower but the overall rhythm remains similar.

Weather forecast for SS1+4 Gandesa

Horta – Bot is a new stage title, but essentially it is the same as Pesells from last year with a section removed from the beginning. The corner where Sebastien Ogier went wide into the field last year is now omitted. The last 10 kilometres have been used every year in the rally since 2011 – from 2015 to 2017 as a shorter stage called Caseres. Pesells was the fastest gravel stage last year and I would expect Horta-Bot to be even faster, with average speeds over 110 km/h.

HortaBot
Horta – Bot 2019 (red), Pesells 2018 & 2012-2014 (turquoise) and Caseres 2015-2017 (green). Image from rally-maps.com, base map from Wikimedia Maps.

Horta – Bot is mostly driven on medium wide, quite soft and sandy gravel roads resembling Rally Sardegna. It’s quite fast with only some technical places thrown in. There’s also some interesting places such as a junction on bedrock at 2 km, a narrow and rough section at 2.9 km, a short bit of tarmac at 10.7 km and a tricky junction over a jump at 12.5 km.

Finally the stage ends at a hairpin junction, with its exit and the following corner on tarmac. In 2017 Kris Meeke span on the last hairpin, but it didn’t stop him from winning the rally.

Weather forecast for SS2+5 Horta-Bot

La Fatarella – Vilailba is better known as Terra Alta, when it was driven in the other direction in a slightly different configuration. This stage is infamous for having a long smooth tarmac section in the middle in addition to a few shorter and narrower paved bits. It has featured in the rally every year since 2010 when the Tarragona area gravel stages were introduced for the first time.

With 38.85 km of length it’s one of the longest stages of the season. If we count it as a gravel stage, it’s the longest one of its kind, but the best comparison should be that of Amarante in Portugal with 37 km of length and also three tarmac sections, albeit shorter ones.

La Fatarella
La Fatarella – Vilailba 2018-2019 (red) and Terra Alta 2013-2017 (green). Image from rally-maps.com, map from Wikimedia Maps.

The beginning is on a narrow and worn tarmac road. After the first junction the road becomes medium wide and right afterwards the surface is back to gravel. It’s again like Sardegna, fast and technical with small stones on the line and stone walls occasionally on the side. The road becomes narrower and rougher at 2.8 km with more technicality and crests. The bedrock is also visible at times.

At 5.6 km the road becomes a bit narrower and rougher as it goes to a forest. In the middle of the forest there’s suddenly two short strips of concrete-paved road after the 7 km mark.

A twisty passage leads onto a quite narrow tarmac road at 9.2 km. It’s quite fast and flowing, but the bumpiness – especially from the concrete river crossings – make it challenging. This is where Ken Block crashed last year.

The surface is back to gravel at 11.3 km on the same road. Some anti-cut blocks are also used on this road, probably to protect the trees. Another concrete river crossing caused a spin for Craig Breen last year.

A hairpin leads to the long tarmac section at 12.8 km. The road is wide and smooth with concrete ditch blocks on the insides keeping the road cleaner. However, driving on tarmac with gravel tyres and suspension is still very different. The rhythm is like Corsica with a constant flow of corners, most of them tight, but still long enough for a flowing pace. The key here is to protect the tyres, as they are already worn and need to still last for many kilometres of gravel.

After 7.5 km of twisty tarmac the stage turns onto a narrow gravel road, although it’s paved in the very beginning. It’s similarly Sardegnan as earlier, with a soft surface covered in coarse gravel. Again some concrete-paved passages can result in surprising bumps.

A junction at 22.9 km deviates the stage from the reversed Terra Alta route onto a road introduced last year. It is similar as the previous one but becomes soon more technical and slow. The next road at 25.7 km is a bit wider and alternates between technical and fast-flowing sections.

The junction turn at 27.9 km takes the stage onto a very small road which seems to have been just ploughed into the soil with little gravel base. At 31.6 km there’s a jump after which the road surface becomes a bit wider, smoother and more gravely again, probably thanks to it being used as a windmill service road. The character becomes also again more fast-flowing.

The junction at 35 km is where Terra Alta used to start. The road is a bit narrower than the previous one, but very fast. Again, at 36.4 km the the windmill service road ends and the stage continues on a rougher and narrower section. Finally a bit of pavement and a pair of junctions ends this long stage.

Weather forecast for SS3+6 La Fatarella – Vilailba

Saturday

Late at Friday night the cars are transformed from gravel to tarmac setup in a mere hour. The Saturday tarmac stages are exactly the same as last year, located North-East from the service park. These stages are more fast and flowing than on Sunday, actually some of the most high-paced tarmac stages of the whole season.

Savallà was a completely new stage for 2017 and has remained unchanged since. Last year its first run was canceled because of spectator issues.

This stage begins on medium wide and smooth tarmac road. It’s fast and flowing except for a few technical places. The hairpin junction at 2.2 km takes the stage onto a wider road, which almost instantly goes back to medium width. The concrete ditches on this road help keeping it cleaner. The section has some long corners but the flow remains through.

The junction at 5.8 km turns onto a quite narrow and slightly worn road. This section is still very fast. At 7.3 km is the corner where Andreas Mikkelsen and Dani Sordo broke their steerings in 2017.

1.5 km later there’s another hairpin turn onto a smooth medium wide road. Again there’s some moderately twisty passages but nothing really to break the flow.

The final kilometre of the stage is driven on a gravel-covered chipseal(?) surface. On dry conditions it’s not much different to tarmac driving, but on rainy conditions it creates some sideways action.

Weather forecast for SS7+10 Savallà

Querol has been sometimes featured in the rally as El Pont d’Armentera when driven in the opposite direction. It was first featured in the rally already in 1993 when the rally visited the Tarragona area for the first time.

Querol is mostly a fast and flowing stage on medium wide roads. There are very fast passages or slightly slower corners here and there as well as two hairpins, but no full rhythm changes. Only the road surface is a bit older and bumpier in the beginning until 9.8 km. Similarly after this there are often concrete ditches, keeping the ending of the stage cleaner and making the cuts smoother.

Weather forecast for SS8+11 Querol

Last year Craig Breen span on both runs of Querol in rainy conditions. On the first occasion he also broke the rear aero. This happened at a corner 12 km into the stage.

El Montmell is the longest tarmac stage of the rally at 24 km. It has often been the fastest stage of the whole rally. It also featured already in 1993, in reverse direction and under the title Can Ferrer.

The stage begins on a medium wide section with a slightly worn surface. It’s fast but technical going over crests and involving cutting over the edge of the road. It gets very fast at 3.4 km but there’s a chicane at 4.5 km. After passing a village there’s another hyper fast section where the throttle is down for almost two kilometres and the top speed is sustained for almost 20 seconds.

After a more technical section the stage becomes again more fast-flowing at 13 km. This is where Esapekka Lappi lost the control of the car at 120 km/h last year. Luckily the car just slid to a halt on the road and they were able to continue.

The fast section is slowed down by another chicane at 14.9 km before a junction turn onto a slightly wider but bumpy and partly worn road. It’s super fast at first before the usual flow of corners returns. The last 5 km are more twisty with even a couple of hairpins. This section is mountainous with a bank on one side and an armco barrier on the other side, meaning there’s no room to cut or go wide.

Weather forecast for SS9+12 El Montmell

Last year Ott Tänak was unlucky on El Montmell. On the first run he had a puncture and on the second one, while trying to make up the lost time, he had a spin at 10.5 km.

Saturday ends again with the Salou super special. It has been driven in the same format since 2012. This year it is the sole super special of the rally. It’s also the only super special of the whole 2019 season to be driven on tarmac setup. Last year this stage was extremely slippery, making it the slowest stage of the whole season with an average speed of 49.8 km/h.

The drivers are faced here with a mix of tarmac, cobblestones and sand on a boulevard area near the beach. The track is mostly made up artificially by placing plastic and concrete barriers, but still there’s no donuts, loops, ramp jumps or chicanes. The track is generally slippery because of the sand from the beach is pulled onto the track.

Weather forecast for SSS13 Salou

Sunday

The Sunday stages are driven North-West from the service park. These stages contain the most technical tarmac sections of the rally. Most of the day is driven in the mountains with the road stuck between an armco or concrete barrier and a mountain wall, meaning that there’s little space to do cuts.

During the first stages of the morning it will still be slightly dark so extra lights are needed. The early wake up is rewarded with a midday visit to the service park to ensure the tyre strategy is correct for the final stages. Last year Sebastien Loeb made his infamous final-minute change to hard tyres in the morning and ended up winning the rally.

Riudecanyes opens the day again like last year. The stage starts on a wide but worn and bumpy road. It’s rather slow and twisty and resembles Tour de Corse.

At 4.2 km there’s the infamous roundabout where the drivers have to do one donut before proceeding. A curious fact is that the last two years a driver on a Citroen has stalled in this donut, going on to win the rally. Coincidence? Will we see it happen for the third time?

The next roundabout is just driven through and then a medium wide road with fresh tarmac is joined. This road is even more twisty and technical than the first one.

At 10.5 km There is a fast passage while driving through the village of Duesaigües. However, soon the pace becomes again Corsican, but less technical than before. The rhythm change might be surprising, like it was for Esapekka Lappi in 2017.

This is clearly the slowest tarmac stage of the rally. It was first used in the rally in 1999, although the direction was opposite and the beginning part omitted  – later such variations have been driven under the title Duesaigües, sometimes also as a power stage, with the finish just after the roundabout.

Weather forecast for SS14+16 Riudecanyes

La Mussara returns to the rally for the first time since 2014, although the beginning section was driven in 2017 as L’Albiol. The same section has also featured earlier in longer stages such as Capafonts and La Riba. The latter of them was featured in the 1993 rally, making La Mussara one of the three “originals” to feature sections from the first Spanish WRC round in Tarragona.

LaMussara
La Mussara 2019 (red) and L’Albiol 2017 (turquoise). Image from rally-maps.com, background map from Wikimedia Maps.

The beginning has a Corsican pace with constant corners, never letting the drivers accelerate for a long time. A series of ten ascending hairpins begins at 3.4 km. This video is from the section in 2016 when the first six kilometres made up a stage called Vilaplana, the last time the section was driven in this direction.

After the hairpins the road is still technical but gets gradually faster. Around 9 km the stage is very fast but still slightly bumpy.

The road becomes smoother at a junction at 13 km. There is a super fast section with long straights and barely any corners which need lifting. Before the end a few corners are slower but they’re long enough to keep the flow going, including a pair of square bends at 16.5 km and a long hairpin just a kilometre before the finish.

Weather forecast for SS15+17 La Mussara

At 20 km of length La Mussara is the longest power stage of the season, although only a kilometre longer than Calvi in Corsica. Still, it’s the first power stage to be over 20 km in length since Mexico 2017.

Road conditions and starting order

There’s a clear disadvantage to start first on the road on these gravel roads. In 2018 Thierry Neuville was first on the road, losing a minute to the leader on the gravel stages, although he also made some mistakes. However, in 2017 Sebastien Ogier was first on the road and managed to be only a second off the lead at the end of the day, mostly thanks to great tyre saving skills on the long tarmac section of Terra Alta and a mixed bag of stage winners on the day.

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The Catalunyan tarmac roads can get dirty. Photo by kyn_chung / Flickr.

On tarmac the tables turn, as the cuts make the road dirtier, but after a couple of cars it’s quite equally “polluted” for all cars, especially those fighting for the win. Usually the second runs of the tarmac stages are still slower than the first ones.

Last year some of the fastest drivers starting at the back for the Saturday tarmac stages – such as Ott Tänak, Jari-Matti Latvala and Sebastien Loeb – all managed to win stages on tarmac.

Ott Tänak continues in the championship lead and will now take his turn to be the road sweeper. Last year it was Thierry Neuville, before that Sebastien Ogier. Now Ogier starts second, Neuville third. Again we could expect fast times on Friday from later starters such as last year’s winner Sebastien Loeb or the local hero Dani Sordo.

Vintage onboard

Here we have Petter Solberg on the returning La Mussara stage. This one’s from 2009 but the stage is driven identically this year, only in the other direction.

3 thoughts on “Route Preview: Rally Catalunya 2019

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