Thierry Neuville finally rediscovered his best form to take victory at Rally Italia Sardegna by 24.8sec over Jari-Matti Latvala. The Belgian had waited the best part of two years to add to his maiden win, scored at Rally Germany 2014, and after a torrid 2015 season and an equally indifferent start to the current campaign, the 27 year-old was finally back to his best.
As has been the case throughout the season, Volkswagen Motorsport’s Polo Rs were never far from the podium shake-up. Championship leader Sébastian Ogier extended his unblemished run of podium finishes in 2016 with third in Sardinia despite once again opening the road on lose gravel. However, neither he nor teammate Latvala were able to prevent the Hyundai squad from scoring its second WRC victory of the year.
A true test of endurance and bravery alike, Rally Italia once again takes place on the beautiful Mediterranean island of Sardinia. Once a year since 2004, the calmness and tranquillity of this idyllic holiday retreat has been shattered by the roar of engines as the WRC show rolls into town. The latest in a long run of gravel events, Rally Italia Sardegna once again presents the early runners with the dreaded chore of sweeping through the loose sandy surfaces of the weekend’s stages. As one of the hottest events on the European calendar, temperatures touching the 30°C mark can cause an extra strain on engines and tyres. However, the two most perilous elements of this rally are undoubtedly Saturday’s 177kms marathon of stages in the Monte Acuto region and the death-defying Mikey’s jump at Monte Lerno where WRC quite literally takes off in Italy.
Friday’s action kicked off with an enthralling dual between Volkwagen’s finest. Familiar sparring partners Ogier and Latvala had the best of the early exchanges, sharing the opening three fastest times between them. But the no sooner had the VW pair stretched out an advantage, when a certain Belgian crashed the party.
Quietly building ahead of steam, Neuville went fastest on stage 4 before repeating the trick on the following test to put him a nose ahead of Latvala after the morning loop. Whilst Ogier fought through the gravel to hold third the Finn responded well to the Hyundai man’s challenge by winning stage 6 to nudge back in front but Neuville was in no mood to back down. He came storming back on Friday evening to stun the German squad into submission and a string of three successive stage wins put Neuville on top by over 11 secs as Friday drew to a close. Hampered by an understeering Polo and rapidly wearing tyres throughout the afternoon, Latvala ended the day second ahead of his French teammate.
Whilst Neuville prospered, it was mixed bag for his Hyundai teammates. Senior colleague Dani Sordo proved the model of consistency as ever by rounding out the top 6 behind the battling Norwegian duo of Andreas Mikkelsen and Mads Østberg. However, there was rather less in the way of luck for the third i20 piloted by Hayden Paddon. Returning to the scene of arguably his breakthrough performance last season, the Kiwi was running in seventh when he ran wide on the very last corner of stage 7. His i20 swiped a tree, tearing off a rear wheel and sending the car into a series of barrel rolls until it finally came to rest in undergrowth 25 metres below the road. It leaves the Korean team counting the cost of yet another rebuild after Paddon’s previous car was gutted by fire in Portugal three weeks ago.
Volkswagen set out on Saturday determined to reel in the confident Neuville. As pursuer in chief, Latvala was given a new gearbox to play with, a masterful decision that payed immediate dividends. With Friday’s handling problems banished, the Finn attacked relentlessly on Saturday morning and looked poised to snatch back the lead with the gap down to 3 seconds. But heavy rain in the afternoon tipped the balence in Neuville’s favour once more. The Belgian flourished in the slippery conditions and despite Latvala conceding that his approach was perhaps a little over-cautious in the wet, he could do little but admire Neuville’s brilliance on the second running of Monte Lerno. The rally leader’s second fastest time of the afternoon increased his cushion to 16.1 seconds heading into the final day of action.
Triple world champion Ogier’s run of consecutive podiums looked under some threat as the road opener toiled in the thick gravel over the course of Saturday. The championship leader had dropped nearly 15 seconds on a single stage in the afternoon, cutting him well adrift of the lead pair and bringing his Polo R into the firing range of teammate Andreas Mikkelsen and M-Sport’s Mads Østberg. However, fortune favoured the Frenchman as first Mikkelsen then Østberg tumbled out of contention on Saturday afternoon. The former had just been slapped with a 10sec penalty for leaving service late when, on stage 14, he collided with a rock, snapping his Polo’s track control arm. The three car battle was then reduced to a one horse race when the Fiesta RS of Mads Osberg came to a stuttering halt near the end of Monte Lerno. The sole remaining Norwegian suffered a similar fate, with another boulder leaving his front right suspension in tatters.
Norway’s double demise saw Dani Sordo’s consistency rewarded. The Spaniard rose to fourth, over a minute adrift of Ogier but importantly two and half minutes clear of fifth placed Ott Tänak who enjoyed a good day at the office, scoring a stage win for his DMACK team on stage 11.
Despite Østberg’s retirement, young Eric Camilli gave M-Sport something to smile about. A trio of top three times on Saturday morning in unfamiliar gravel conditions was enough to see the fast improving Frenchman secure seventh.
Sunday’s four remaining tests were memorable not just for Neuville, who made absolutely sure of victory by snatching another two stage wins – his eighth and ninth of the rally – but also for Eric Camilli. Sandwiched between Neuville’s brace of triumphs, the 28 year-old registered his first ever fastest time in WRC on stage 17, overhauling Henning Solberg and grabbing sixth position which he successfully defended.
Elsewhere, there was no change on the leaderboard on Sunday afternoon. After Neuville gained another three seconds over Latvala on Cala Flumini, the Finn finally gave up the ghost. With the gap approaching a virtually unbridgeable 20 seconds, only a mistake by the leader could’ve provided the VW star with any hope. It didn’t come, and a delighted and visibly relieved Neuville crossed the final time control to become the fifth different winner in as many WRC rounds.
A cruising Sébastien Ogier followed Neuville and Latvala on to the podium despite a brief moment of panic overshooting a junction in the morning. The championship leader will be more than happy to see his opponents sharing the big points, as has been the case at the previous four rallies. Having not left the podium so far this year and winning all but one power stage in 2016, Ogier’s supreme consistency sees him even further ahead of the pack in the driver’s championship as he packs up his bags for Poland.
Another man blessed with a steady hand at the wheel is Dani Sordo. He notched up yet another fourth place finish after a solid outing in Italy, his fourth in succession, and now sits second in the championship behind Ogier. DMACK’s Ott Tänak and M-Sport’s Eric Camilli rounded out the top six, both in Ford Fiesta RS cars.
Next up, WRC returns to the high octane, high speed gravel roads of Rally Poland. Sébastien Ogier will be out to defend his 2015 crown and extend his already formidable lead in this year’s championship. The action in Poland, the halfway point of the 2016 WRC campaign, runs from the 30th June – 3rd July.
Final Results: Round 6 – Rally Italia Sardegna
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