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WRC Rally Italy

WRC Sardinia: The Good, The Bad and a Hyundai revival

At times, a boat would have been more appropriate to master an unusually wet Rally Sardinia as Thierry Neuville waded through the mud to score a first World Rally Championship win of the season. Autosport reviews the highs, lows, turning points, close calls and heartbreak from a wild Rally Sardinia

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Top Performer - Esapekka Lappi and Janne Ferm

He didn't stand on the top step of the podium, but in the words of Hyundai team principal Cyril Abiteboul, “For me, Esapekka has been the man of the rally.” 

The one-time WRC rally winner delivered one of the drives of his career to finish second behind eventual winner and Hyundai team-mate Thierry Neuville. He took the fight to Toyota’s eight-time world champion Sebastien Ogier as the pair played out an intense head-to-head that included seven lead changes across 10 of the 19 stages. The pair were split by 0.1s in Lappi’s favour at the end of Friday.

While Lappi impressed, in at times incredibly challenging wet and Safari Rally-like conditions, the story of this performance stems from the work he carried out behind the scenes. The former Citroen, M-Sport and Toyota driver found something in a pre-event test at Hyundai’s Finnish test base. He admitted it was a risky set-up gamble but pushed his engineers to go with it for Sardinia. He stuck to his instincts and it paid off handsomely.

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Romain Thuillier / Hyundai Motorsport

In the past, Lappi has shown glimpses that he can challenge for wins. But more often than not his charge collapses on Saturday mornings, as seen in Mexico this year and in Sardinia 12 months ago. This time he didn’t fold as he whittled an 18.2s Saturday afternoon deficit to 4.3s heading into stage 14.

Aided by smart tyre strategy calls from his Hyundai team, he became a thorn in Ogier’s side, heaping pressure on the Frenchman, who eventually made a rare mistake by crashing out of the lead on that fourteenth stage.

Lappi was unfortunate to lose the lead to Neuville when he backed off after being informed by the team that Ogier had crashed. It must be said, however, that Neuville produced a stunning drive in horrible conditions to wrestle the lead away.

Aware that Neuville is the team’s chosen one for a drivers’ championship attack, Lappi was frustrated at missing out on his big chance for victory. Hyundai maintains that it didn’t deploy team orders but Lappi couldn’t hide his frustration, stating: “I’m not saying I would have taken it, but at least it would be nice to fight for it to the end.”

However, Lappi’s performance proved that he will surely add to that one WRC win scored in Finland in 2017 soon.

Winner Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Winner Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Romain Thuillier / Hyundai Motorsport

Honourable mentions: Thierry Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe, Kalle Rovanpera and Jonne Halttunen

Under pressure to notch up a victory having yet to stand on the top step of the podium in 2023, Thierry Neuville produced a highly impressive drive in difficult conditions.

Neuville spent much of Friday struggling to match team-mate Lappi but found his groove on Saturday to reel off five stage wins, to bring him within 7.4s of Ogier before the Frenchman faltered on stage 14.

The Belgian benefitted from the pressure Lappi put on Ogier to provide him a platform to strike. His drive on stage 14 was nothing short of sublime. Once ahead, he was able to cruise to a much needed 33.0s victory over Lappi to head an emotional Hyundai 1-2.

Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Toyota Racing

Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera openly admits that he doesn’t like Rally Sardinia and his record there isn’t too pretty, with a fifth his best result from three top-tier attempts prior to this year.

However, the Finn produced what he called a “clever” drive from first on the road, which was almost derailed by small herd of cows on Friday, to finish third, 1m55.3s adrift. To add further pressure on his championship rivals, he left his least favoured event on the calendar with 20 points after adding an extra five with another of his trademark mesmerising Power Stage performances.

It appears it's going to take something special to beat Rovanpera this year now he has moved into a 25-point lead over Neuville in the championship.

Podium: Winner Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1, second place Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Podium: Winner Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1, second place Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

Team of the Week: Hyundai Motorsport

When it comes to winning in Sardinia look no further than Hyundai. Neuville’s victory has created history with the Korean marque now the most successful brand in the event’s history having won six of the last eight editions.

The team nailed every decision it was required to make. This stemmed from its event preparation, which included taking a measured gamble on an experimental suspension set-up unearthed by Lappi in testing.

As much as the battle for victory was fought on the stages with brave performances from its drivers, the weather crew also won its battle in predicting impending rain showers. And that led to an almost perfect tyre strategy.

There had been growing pressure around the team having headed to Sardinia as the only Rally1 squad yet to stand on the top step of the podium. This, coupled, with the pain and loss its team members have gone through following the loss of Craig Breen in April, made this victory a particularly emotional one.

“It is emotional, it is the first one for the team this year. It is a team effort and team success,” said team principal Cyril Abiteboul.

“I think it is really deserved. It has been a proper drivers rally and I’m glad we have come out on top in that one because it is certainly a statement as to what motorsport is. It is about commitment, being daring and being smart. And I think we have done all of that.”

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Moments of Heartbreak

Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta was the first to fall foul of the water splashes in Sardinia. The Japanese attacked a water crossing too fast on stage eight, damaging his GR Yaris’ radiator which put him out of fifth spot.

 

Team-mate Sebastien Ogier was in prime position to challenge for a record breaking fifth Sardinia victory after edging Hyundai’s Lappi in a head-to-head until it all unravelled on Saturday afternoon.

Ogier’s downfall began when he damaged the front of his GR Yaris in a stage 12 water splash, the same hazard that had ended Katsuta’s rally. Despite undergoing roadside repairs, Ogier witnessed his 18.2s lead reduce to 4.3s as his wounded Toyota headed to stage 14. A minute before the stage check-in, a slow puncture alarm went off, necessitating a rapid 58s wheel change.

However, in the panic Ogier jumped in the car with muddy boots. His foot then slipped off the brake pedal in treacherous wet conditions which resulted in a rare mistake as the eight-time world champion veered into a ditch. That ultimately handed the lead to Neuville.

 

It proved to be another heartbreaking weekend for M-Sport-Ford. Pierre-Louis Loubet was running as high as third on Friday morning before his gearbox jammed, preventing him from starting stage five. Broken steering then put him out of the rally completely.

Ott Tanak struggled again with his Puma, which developed a water pump issue on Friday. This dropped the Estonian to seventh overall, before he became one of the victims of the water splashes on stage nine. Water managed to find its way into the car's electrics prompting a complete electrical system shutdown, ending his rally hopes.

 

To top off a desperately difficult weekend for the British squad, Adrien Fourmaux crashed out of a comfortable 31s WRC2 lead on the final stage.

Dani Sordo, Candido Carrera, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Dani Sordo, Candido Carrera, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

Lucky Escapes

Hyundai’s Dani Sordo can count himself lucky that a small roll during the first pass of the infamous Monte Lerno (stage four) didn’t end his rally on the spot.

The two-time Sardinia winner struggled for grip on the hard tyres and slid wide at a left-hander. Sordo pressed forward in the hope of finding his way back to the road, but instead slid down a steep embankment that toppled his i20 N into an end-over-end roll.

 

Spectators managed to push the damaged car back onto its wheels to allow Sordo to nurse it back to service, where he and co-driver Candido Carrera skipped lunch to help the mechanics with the repair job. An exhaust issue on Sunday robbed the crew of fifth overall.

Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta was also fortunate after an off-road excursion on the same stage. The Japanese went straight on at a left-hander, resulting in his GR Yaris becoming wedged between two large rocks. Amazingly he was able to reverse out and continue before a water splash ended his rally. Three of Toyota's drivers had issues with splashes, prompting an investigation by the team.

Top Tweets

Sardinia provided a perfect dress rehearsal for Safari Rally Kenya.  

 

The drivers certainly earned their money tackling desperately wet conditions. 

 

The Petter Solberg/Phil Mills winning Subaru from the first Rally Sardinia back in 2004 was part of the 20th anniversary celebrations.

 

Hot Shots

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Photo by: M-Sport

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Fabien Dufour / Hyundai Motorsport

Takamoto Katsuta, Aaron Johnston, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT NG Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Takamoto Katsuta, Aaron Johnston, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT NG Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Photo by: M-Sport

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