Reigning world champion Sébastien Ogier was back to his best on the gravel trails and tracks of Sardinia to claim maximum points on Rally Italia. After having been off the top step of the podium in recent rallies, France’s finest firmly re-established his grip on the 2015 drivers’ championship by taking victory by 3min 5secs on round six of the season, although he had to come from behind to secure it.
Elsewhere, the star performance of the rally, and perhaps of the season so far, came courtesy of little fancied New Zealander Hayden Paddon. The Hyundai starlet produced the drive of his life to lead the event for the best part of two days, only for an off on Saturday evening to demote him to second, still a career best finish. There was more joy for Hyundai who also grabbed third place thanks to a solid drive from Thierry Neuville, completing the Korean outfit’s first double podium of the season.
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 and the cluck of metal on rock 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 200km marathon of stages, the longest leg of any WRC round since 2002, and the death-defying Mikey’s jump where WRC quite literally takes off in Italy.
With road conditions clearly favouring those starting lower down the order on day one, Friday provided a clear opportunity for Ogier’s title rivals to gain a significant head start on the Frenchman as he bulldozed through the gravel-caked stages of the morning leg. However, the charge was led by a lesser known face as 28 year-old Hayden Paddon piloted Hyundai’s number three car to three out of four stage wins on the morning loop, establishing an advantage as impressive as it was unlikely by midday service.
As the roads cleared somewhat for the second pass on Friday afternoon, the usual suspects began to stamp their authority on proceedings. Multiple stage wins for Sébastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala closed the gap to Paddon late on despite the Finn losing 20secs when his Polo R clattered into a bank, displacing the rear left tyre from its rim. Nevertheless, the Kiwi was able to hold his own and ended day one with not only a 8.8sec cushion but also the accolade of becoming the first New Zealand driver to lead a WRC round outside of his native country.
The only other man to set a fastest time on Friday, Ott Tänak , sat a minute off the leader in fourth by Friday evening ahead of the Citroën of Mads Østberg in fifth and Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai i20 in sixth. A number of big names hit the buffers early on in Italy including Volkswagen’s high-flying Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen. He made it no further than stage 3 after hitting a hole and suffering serious suspension damage and then losing fuel pressure on the subsequent road section. Elsewhere, Citroën’s Kris Meeke rolled on the very first test, Robert Kubica had a terminal collision with a chicane on stage 2 and Spaniard Dani Sordo retired from forth following an accident that left his i20 minus a wheel.
Leader Paddon attacked Saturday’s morning loop of stages knowing full well that he would once again hold the critical road position advantage over the charging Ogier. However, despite his considerable handicap, the VW ace did an excellent job of limiting the inevitable damage and successfully kept Paddon’s progress in check. By midday service, the Kiwi had barley been able to add a second to his advantage heading in the more level playing field of Saturday afternoon’s freshly swept roads. In more favourable conditions Ogier was finally able to turn the screw, closing steadily to within 9secs of his target and then pouncing on a Paddon error on stage 17 to snatch the lead. The Hyundai man had lost the rear of his i20 at a sharp hairpin and subsequently stalled. This spin cost him around 10secs and seemed to momentarily shake his otherwise unwavering confidence.
Paddon ended the stage 12.6secs down on new leader Ogier but there was worse news for another front-runner, third place man Ott Tänak. The Estonian had looked pacey all weekend at the wheel of the new generation Ford Fiesta RS but never saw the end of stage 17 as a transmission failure left him with only sixth gear and no hope of limping back to the service park.
It was a frustrating day for nearly all of the big hitters. After Tänak ’s retirement third was quickly seized by Mads Østberg in the Citroën DS3, 31.4secs ahead of Hyundai’s Neuville, although both men had been afflicted by a series of niggling problems including slow punctures and power steering issues. However, it was Latvala who took the biggest hit as he shipped over 7mins in total after first stopping to replace a tyre after a rough landing on one of Rally Italia’s many mammoth jumps and later damaging his Polo’s suspension on a rock. As a result, the frustrated Finn had plummeted to a distant sixth by the end of day 2, one place behind Welshman Elfyn Evans in the only remaining M-Sport Fiesta.
However, there was one more twist in store before the day was out. Even with Ogier now marginally ahead, hopes in the Paddon camp of a fairy-tale maiden victory were still very much alive ahead of Sunday’s final quartet of stages. That was until the unfortunate Kiwi rammed his i20 into a ridge of solid bedrock hidden in a dip in the road on Saturday’s penultimate test. The impact was heavy enough to badly damage the car’s gearbox and trigger a serious oil leak. Running repairs by a visibly devastated Paddon and co-driver John Kennard were enough to nurse the car to the end of the test but the duo were still faced with the daunting task of negotiating the monster 42km stage 19 before the day was out. Against all the odds, with only ratchet straps holding the i20’s wounded gearbox together, Paddon was able to nurse his stricken car through the final test without further incident to the safety of the Hyundai service park where it was returned to full working order ahead of the final day of competition. Now over 2mins adrfit of Ogier, Paddon’s hopes of victory had been all but dashed but at least the New Zealander’s car – and his podium challenge -remained very much intact.
Fate seemed once again to be shining on Sébastien Ogier who easily cruised home on Sunday to claim his fourth rally win of the season. The French star scooped an additional three bonus points on the event-closing power stage to extend his lead in the championship to 66 points as WRC 2015 nears its halfway point. Both of his rivals at Volkswagen fell further back in the overall standings, with Mikkelsen enduring a torrid double retirement and Latvala scoring only 10 points for his sixth place finish.
The only change to the top three on the final day came when Mads Østberg crashed his DS3 on Sunday’s opener, losing the Norwegian over a minute and with it his grip on third. The damage sustained was evidently more serious that he and co-driver Jonas Andersson had first feared as the Citroën pairing proceeded to limp through the following stage, finishing the event a distant fifth, 2mins 15secs behind the consistent Evans.
Although Ogier’s sterling performance must not be overlooked, the biggest plaudits rightly go to Hayden Paddon for a stunning drive and what looks to be a watershed moment in the Kiwi’s fledgling rallying career. His delight was shared by the entire Hyundai team who leave Italy with an impressive 19 point haul thanks to Paddon’s heroics and an unexpected late promotion up the order for third-place Neuville.
New faces on the podium are a welcome sight not only for Hyundai, but also for Ogier. As the only man having put together a consistent run of high points finishes so far this season, the Frenchman is now accumulating an increasingly unassailable lead at the head of the field as the rest of the pack continue to skirmish over the minor places.
Round 7 marks the halfway stage of the 2015 season and sees the action shift to the all-gravel Rally Poland, running from the 2nd – 5th July.
Final Results: Round 6 – Rally Italia Sardegna
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