Hyundai Motorsport's rally team tackles the Rally de España in Catalunya, Spain, on Thursday with a new driver and a fresh resolve to challenge Ford Motorsport for the championship honours in the remaining three events in this year's FIA World Rally Championship.
Andreas Mikkelsen, who has signed a contract to race for Hyundai Motorsport until the end of 2019, will move into the driver's seat of one of the three i20 WRC Coupé cars entered for the 11th round in this year's championship, which will be run from Thursday 5 October to Sunday 8 October in the area of Tarragona, a seaside town just south of Barcelona.
Mikkelsen's fellow drivers in the Hyundai Motorsport World Rally Team will be the Belgian Thierry Neuville, who is second in the WRC drivers' standings, and Dani Sordo, who will be very familiar with the winding gravel and tarmac roads in his home country. Mikkelsen's navigator is Anders Jaeger, while Nicolas Gilsoul and Marc Martí are the co-drivers of Neuville and Sordo respectively.
"Our focus in Spain, on Dani and Marc's home event, will be very much on making up ground after a disappointing showing last time out on Rallye Deutschland," said Michel Nandan, team principal at Hyundai Motorsport. "It wasn't so much a weekend to forget as one from which we must learn and bounce back. We thought we would be able to mount a stronger challenge in Germany, our home event, where we have enjoyed so much success in the past, but for a number of different reasons we were just not able to do that.
"We know from other rallies this season that our Hyundai i20 Coupé WRC is highly competitive, so that result was hard to accept. But it is not in our nature to give up without a fight and that's the mentality with which we will tackle the three remaining rallies in this year's championship."
According to Nandan discussions with Mikkelsen have been ongoing since he was left without a drive at the beginning of the season, but Hyundai Motorsport had nothing to offer him then as its driver line-up was fixed. "However, with us losing ground in the title race, we decided to re-evaluate the situation. We had an open discussion with all three of our crews, who remain under contract with the team, and informed them of our decision to make this adjustment."
Mikkelsen says he has been in contact with all the teams since last year, and it was no question after seeing the performance of the Hyundai that he was keen to find something to do with them. "I tried the Hyundai i20 Coupé WRC earlier in the season - I really, really loved it and it felt awesome. But then I did some rallies for Citroe?n, which allowed me to get back into that WRC feeling again because it had been a while. Now my chance has come about with Hyundai and I am really looking forward to starting."
"When you see the performance of the Hyundai i20 Coupé WRC, it's a winning car on every surface in the championship. The team has been around for some years now and they really have the winning package to fight for both championship titles, so to get the opportunity to join the team is absolutely a dream come true."
The Norwegian, who has won the Rallye de España in 2015, says his first aim is to do his best to help the team in the manufacturers' championship "and of course being team-mates now with Thierry in his shot for the drivers' title, and for sure I will help him in that. We go a long [way] back, we've been fighting with each other since we were almost kids, since 2010, so we've been competitors for a long time. Now we have finally teamed up and I think this will work really well and I will support him in any way I can because I am not really driving for my championship this year."
"I have very good memories from Rally de España. Of course, it was the first rally where I had a victory, and it brings a lot of good moments back every year. It's a really difficult rally because it's on both surfaces at the same time and you have to switch from tarmac to gravel very quickly without any testing between, so it's a bit of a challenge but very enjoyable."
Mikkelsen comes to Hyundai on the back of an 11-year rallying career. He began competing in the UK in 2006 to gain his driving licence at 17, and 16 days after his birthday became the youngest winner of a British national rally on the Quinton Stages.
Fifth place on the 2008 Rally Sweden, at just 17 years and 233 days old, then made him the youngest driver ever to score a WRC point. Mikkelsen won the Norwegian Group N championship and Subaru Cup title in 2009 as well as back-to-back Intercontinental Rally Challenge titles in 2011-12, becoming the series' youngest ever champion.
Having joined Volkswagen's WRC line-up, he took his maiden win on the 2015 Rally de Espan~a. Mikkelsen went on to take two more WRC victories last season - in Poland and Australia - and was most recently second on August's Rallye Deutschland.
Challenging mix of surfaces in Spain
Spain's mixed composition of gravel and tarmac roads offers a unique challenge for drivers and teams alike, covering 19 timed stages over a total distance of 312 km.
The rally gets underway on Thursday evening with a ceremonial start at Salou before the opening gravel stages begin on Friday morning. The highlight will be the 38,95km Terra Alta stage, which includes occasional tarmac sections, and requires careful tyre choice and due diligence from inside the cockpit.
The mechanics have the biggest workload on Friday evening as they transform the Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC cars from gravel to tarmac spec - all in the tight timeframe of a 75-minute service. Saturday's schedule includes new stages and old ones, before a final gruelling push on Sunday covering six stages without the luxury of service.
Rested and tested
Following two disappointing events in Finland and Germany, Hyundai Motorsport wants to re-position itself at the forefront of the WRC with a strong performance in Spain. In the past the team has performed well in Spain, having taken a third place in 2015 and second and third place in 2016.
The team carried out two test sessions with all three crews on tarmac and gravel in September in preparation for this year's Spanish event. The cars will be fitted with an upgraded aerodynamic package, which includes a new front bumper and rear wing.
WRC Drivers' Championship standings:
1. Sébastien Ogier (170); 2. Thierry Neuville (160); 3. Ott Tänak (144); 4. Jari-Matti Latvala (123); 5. Dani Sordo (89); 6. Elfyn Evans (87); 7. Craig Breen (64); 8. Juho Hänninen (58); 9. Hayden Paddon (55); 10. Esapekka Lappi (49).
WRC Manufacturers' Championship standings:
1. M-Sport World Rally Team (325); 2. Hyundai Motorsport (261); 3. Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team (213); 4. Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team (163).