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Tänak Makes the Breakthrough at Rally Italia Sardegna

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Ott Tänak ’s long wait for a maiden WRC victory is finally over after the Estonian piloted his M-Sport Ford Fiesta to victory at Rally Italia Sardegna. The veteran of 72 WRC starts made it 73rd time lucky on the Mediterranean gravel, simultaneously boosting M-Sport’s win tally to three for the season. The first Estonian to claim a top-level victory since 2004 headed Jari-Matti Latvala’s Toyota Yaris by 12.3secs in the final shakeup. Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville enhanced his tilt on the 2017 drivers’ title with third place, despite a turbulent outing in the i20 WRC.

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. As ever, the death-defying Mikey’s jump at Monte Lerno is the main draw for spectators keen to get a glimpse of some aerial WRC action.

An even and tightly fought contest on Friday saw the top five separated by just 15secs by close of play. The lead changing hands no less than four times over the course of the nine-stage opening leg, with Thierry Neuville, Kris Meeke and Juha Hänninen all failing to consolidate early gains. Whilst the former and the latter hung in there – Neuville ending the day second and Hänninen sixth following radiator damage on the final test – Meeke was less fortunate. The Citroën number one clipped a bank on stage 5, sending his C3 WRC into a vicious barrel roll. The damage sustained crippled the car and the subsequent 8 minute delay left the hapless Briton high and dry in the dusty gravel.

This left Hayden Paddon out in front by the time Friday’s action had drawn to a close. Coming off the back of a rough run of form in the previous three or four events, the Hyundai star finally had something to smile about after negotiating Friday’s tests cleanly. His lead over tamate Neuville, stood at 8.2secs, with Ott Tänak a further 1.3sec behind in the lead Ford Fiesta. Jari-Matti Latvala ploughed his Toyota Yaris resolutely though the dense gravel, and will have been pleased to secure fourth from a disadvantageous starting position. Slotted in behind the Finn was fellow Scandinavia Mads Østberg , initially third in a privateer Ford Fiesta before his semi-soft compound tyres withered badly in the oppressive 30°C afternoon heat.

Whilst Neuville, Paddon and Tänak  fared relatively well, their respective teammates all floundered on the roasting gravel. Even four-time champion Sébastien Ogier seemed powerless to salvage anything more than seventh, condemned to a day opening the unwept tracks. There was worse in store for M-Sport’s Elfyn Evans and Hyundai’s Dani Sordo. The young Welshman retired early on after crashing his Fiesta WRC whilst Spaniard Sordo spent the entire day critically low on power due to a faulty turbo unit. He was a country mile from the remaining points-scoring places, occupied by  Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi, returning 2016 season runner-up Andreas Mikkelsen and former M-Sport pilot Eric Camilli.

Despite a promising morning for Hayden Paddon, in the course of which the New Zealander had managed to extend his cushion over Neuville to 10 secs, the wheels literally and metaphorically came off the 30 year-old’s challenge on Saturday afternoon. The afternoon’s action had barely got underway when Paddon ripped the entire rear right section off of his car after coming to blows with a roadside bank. Retirement was the only option for the visibly dejected Kiwi, who nursed the i20 to the finish despite flames consuming the barely-attached rear wheel.

Hyundai’s day was rapidly unravelling, with Paddon’s error compounding the misery of seeing Thierry Neuville’s own i20 suffer brake failure on the previous test.  A minute lost allowed Latvala a clear run at second and the former Volkswagen pilot duly obliged by posting a number of top three times. Whilst Latvala looked quick, he couldn’t reel in Tänak , now the de facto leader with both i20s out of the picture. Even before Paddon’s disasterous error, the Estonian was looking threatening, an impression merely confirmed by a trio of fastest times on Saturday afternoon. A near 25 second gap to Latvala meant the nearly man of WRC could finally dare to dream of the bubbly awaiting him on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Esapekka Lappi climbed to fourth behind the demoted Neuville on only his second outing in a World Rally Car. He even passed teammate Juho Hänninen on the final stage, when the  more experienced of the Finns was hit by power steering failure. Further back, frustration was reaching boiling point for championship leader Ogier. A puncture badly hindered his attempts to claw back the time lost on Friday.

Just four stages stood between Tänak  and a first ever top-tier victory on Sunday in Sardinia. However, as the Estonian knows from bitter personal experience, WRC has a habit of springing nasty surprises.

So when dust began to swamp the holed cabin of his Ford Fiesta, reducing visibility to almost zero, a disorientated Tänak and co-driver Raigo Molder feared the worst. Overshooting a junction and sliding into roadside undergrowth on stage 16 allowed the pursuing Latvala to squeeze the gap to under 20 seconds, however this time the rallying gods were smiling on the M-Sport pairing. Sensing an unlikely late victory bid, Latvala was swiftly pegged back when he stalled on the very next test, frittering away the precious seconds previously gained on Tänak.

A relieved Tänak duly measured his pace over the remaining three stages to finally enter the pantheon of WRC rally winners.

Despite his late slip-up, Latvala was upbeat about his third podium finish of 2017. He headed Neville in third, but young Yaris Teammate Esapekka Lappi’s stunning drive to fourth in only his second World Rally Car outing was surely the true fairy-tale story of the weekend.  Getting the better of a four-time world champion is one for the CV, a feat the 26-year-old achieved with consummate ease with Sébastien Ogier marooned a full 1min 12.4secs Ogier back in fifth.

Things could’ve been worse for the defending champion, who caught and demoted Juho Hänninen on Sunday morning when the third of the Toyota trio was hampered by power steering issues.

Seventh belonged to Mads Østberg who laboured through the final stage with broken suspension . Andreas Mikkelsen, meanwhile, can be relatively pleased with his first outing in the new generation Citroën C3 WRC. More significantly, eighth in Italy was enough to persuade team boss Yves Matton to reward the three-time rally winner with another outing in Poland, where he’ll sit in for the struggling Kris Meeke.

For the first time since Rally Sweden, Sébastien Ogier’s lead at the top of the drivers’ standings has been clipped. 18 points now separate the M-Sport pilot from Hyundai’s challenger-in-chief Neuville; not that this small setback should overly alarm the usually unflappable Frenchman. A 25-point haul for Tänak, meanwhile, catapults him up to third, one point clear of Jari-Matti Latvala.

Rally Poland, which runs from 29 June – 2 July, officially kicks off the second half of the 2017 season. Expect speed dials to be hitting the red as the new generation World Rally Cars tear up the gravel on one of the fastest events of the season.

Final Results: Round 7 – Rally Italia Sardegna

POS DRIVER CO-DRIVER TEAM POINTS TIME DIFF PREV DIFF 1ST
1. ESTO. TANAK ESTM. JARVEOJA M-SP 25 3:25:15.1
2. FINJ. LATVALA FINM. ANTTILA TOY 18+1 3:25:27.4 +12.3 +12.3
3. BELT. NEUVILLE BELN. GILSOUL HYU 15+2 3:26:22.8 +55.4 +1:07.7
4. FINE. LAPPI FINJ. FERM TOY 12+5 3:27:28.0 +1:05.2 +2:12.9
5. FRAS. OGIER FRAJ. INGRASSIA M-SP 10+3 3:28:40.4 +1:12.4 +3:25.3
6. FINJ. HÄNNINEN FINK. LINDSTROM TOY 8 3:28:53.6 +13.2 +3:38.5
7. NORM. OSTBERG NORO. FLOENE M-SP  6 3:31:46.9 +2:53.3 +6:31.8
8. NORA. MIKKELSEN NORA. SYNNEVAAG CIT 4 3:33:22.9 +1:36.0 +8:07.8

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