For round 8 of the FIA World Rally Championship it was time to “Jump in the dust” on the beautiful Mediterranean island of Sardinia; where Italy’s round of the championship has been held since 2004. But this was to be no relaxing beach holiday for the WRC crews as this tough event would once again deliver a cruel blow in a dramatic end to the rally.
Last year this event delivered a thrilling end on the final power stage where Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville snatched the win from Sébastien Ogier by just 0.7 seconds. The pair along with Championship rival Ott Tanak headed to this event following another dusty battle in Portugal where the Toyota man, Tanak scored another victory in his charge for the title.
19 Stages covering some 310km of competitive action faced the crews from the sun kissed port of Alghero where the rally HQ and service park were located. With tough rugged gravel stages, sometimes with sandy surfaces, in temperatures above 30°C this scorcher of an event features a number of world famous iconic jumps. Despite not much of the route changing from last year (only some 20km) Sardinia, as always, would put up a tough challenge and leave our Championship contenders with a layer of dust on their Pizza’s.
Following one of the many configurations used in the past on this stage, a short 3.92km shakedown test at Olmedo on Thursday morning set the event up perfectly, with a nice section at the beginning through a working Quarry which provided a nice amphitheatre for the rally fans.
The Current championship leader Sébastien Ogier topped the timings here in his Citroёn C3, posting a time just nine tenths of second quicker over the three runs compared to that of his rival, Ott Tanak.
However this was no real guide of how rally would be for real, because Ogier was first in the running order and would be the man with the disadvantege to clean the stages ahead of the rest of the field.
Following a ceremonial start at the harbour side of this picturesque historic port town the crews passed through the colourful streets of Alghero on their way out to the opening Super Special Stage at the Ittiri Arena; where a head to head blast around the short 2km stage got the fans in the right mood.
An evening of action underneath the setting Sardinian sun with a jump and water splash thrown in for good measure resulted in the pair of Citroёns ending the opening stage with a one-two. Ogier leading team-mate Esapekka Lappi by just a single tenth of a second as they headed into Friday, the first full day’s action.
“It’s better than nothing – every tenth counts! Tomorrow will be a different story starting first. I will push to do everything and hopefully after tomorrow night we can have an okay starting position for the rest of the weekend!”
The opening leg of the rally was an identical route to last year, a loop of four stages repeated in the afternoon with the 22km Tula stage providing the first test for the crews to tackle.
Arriving in Sardinia with a new but somewhat old Co-Driver, M-Sports Teemu Suninen would have a familiar voice alongside him calling the notes. Former Co-Driver to WRC driver of the past, Mikko Hirvonen, fellow countryman from Finland Jarmo Lehtinenen had been called out of retirement to take up the hot seat in the Ford Fiesta.
By the stop line of SS2, it was looking like a genius substitute, as the pairing had opened up the proceedings perfectly with a stage win. Not far behind them in second were team-mates, Elfyn Evans and Scott Martin, what a start to the rally for the M-Sport team this was.
The magic in the all Finish Fiesta continued to flow into the short 14km SS3 Castelsardo stage, it clearly hadn’t taken them long to find the mojo. Despite Jarmo having to adopt a different style of pace-notes to what he had known in the past alongside Hirvonen, things were working, and working well they were.
But hold on, that Toyota of Tanak was slowly creeping up behind and was starting to make his move.
In SS4 Tergu – Osilo, another short stage, Tanak was back at doing what he does best, winning his first stage of the rally, not bad from second on the road! By now he, like a lot of the crews, were starting to feel the effects of these tough Sardinian stages. Tyre wear was becoming a problem for many, with a lot of drivers reporting that their rubber was becoming more like slicks, as the abrasive roads ripped the tread off of their Michelin tires.
“It feels like a cow on slippy ice! It’s difficult but I am doing everything I can.”
Suninen appeared to have some issues in this stage and dropped down to 10th OA losing the lead, but as in any situation, one man’s loss in another’s gain; Jari-Matti Latvala for once was the man with the luck.
Following his rather un-lucky time in Portugal a few weeks earlier where he did have the pace to fight at the top, Sardinia was another event where his knowledge and experience should help him. Despite having a big moment in this stage he was the rally leader.
“I didn’t expect it to be so slippery and we had a big moment. Toni Gardemeister rolled at the same corner in 1997 so I know the corner!”
Elsewhere, Britain’s Gus Greensmith planted his R5 Fiesta off the road down a bank and in some bushes. After the promising show in the full WRC spec car last time out in Portugal maybe he just had problems adjusting back to the R5 machine? Anyhow he eventually hauled the Fiesta out and continued onto the last stage of the mornings loop with a time penalty for lateness, while Lappi made a mistake also, resulting in a puncture.
With a fresh tyre on his Citroёn C3, Lappi was able to get his eye in again by winning the last stage of the mornings loop ahead of Tanak. Still hinting at issues with the car, there was an air of hopelessness in the cock pit of the C3 at the stop line of SS5 – Monte Barante.
“It really doesn’t help. I don’t know what I should do to be honest. There is always some surprise which I don’t expect.”
While one un-happy Citroёn driver was still trying, the other our Champ Ogier, was also far from being happy. As if having to put up with being first on the road wasn’t hard enough, a rare mistake in the opening kilometre of the final stage of the morning would end his rally for the day. Hitting a large rock placed at the side of the route as a marker in the Quarry section of the Monte Barante stage, his C3 would suffer damage to the front left steering. Bizarre considering he had driven the same route three times already on the previous days shakedown. Put this down to frustration or a dip in concentration, he was unable to fix the damaged steering part and was left with no option but to retire.
At the end of the mornings loop it was a Toyota one-two, Jari-Matti Latvala leading team-mate Ott Tanak by 2.8 seconds with Dani Sordo putting in a decent effort in the Hyundai i20 as the best of the rest in third.
Back out for the afternoons loop and temperature was now hitting 40°C, thanks to Ogier’s exit, Tanak had now taken up the role of road sweeper, one was not impressed. The second pass through the Tula stage would be a rather eventful one, Tanak was clean through but there would be drama for both Neuville and Latvala.
Now that Ogier was out of the equation the Belgium was on a charge to catch rival Tanak but a misunderstanding in a pace-note called by Co-Driver Nicolas Gilsoul caused a spin. The Hyundai i20 went off the track losing some 15 seconds, Neuville could be heard on the in car comms “Ahh Nicolas!!” but even more worrying was that radiator had suffered some damage. At the end of the stage on the road section, Neuville and Gilsoul set about repairing their broken radiator in order to continue on.
After being on the receiving end of lady luck in the mornings loop, Latvala had now run out of credit with her. In his attempt to maintain his lead ahead of his team-mate he pushed just that little too much with a stupid mistake. Some 4km towards the end of the stage he cut a tight downhill hair pin too much which sent him up over on the side of the Yaris.
With only a couple of spectators on hand to help out, Latvala and Co-Driver Miikka Antilla gave it their all to get the Yaris back on all fours. They cruised their battered Yaris through the remainder of the stage and at the stop line a visible emotional Jari-Matti was absolutely exhausted.
“I used so much strength to get the car back on its wheels – nobody was around to help. I cut the hairpin too tight.”
Now refreshed from service Teemu Suninen was ready to continue on his charge by winning the opening stage of the afternoon, being promoted to third following Latvala’s roll. Despite finding the stage rough, Sordo’s continued efforts were rewarding him well, his second fastest stage time had earned him the joint overall lead with Tanak.
The second run through Castelsardo was stopped after only Tanak, Neuville and Evans had completed the stage, crews were rerouted onto SS8 – Tergu – Osilo where Neuville’s dramas were to continue.
Tanak who was first through appeared rather unhappy following the cancellation of stage 7, sighting that it was un-fare to have done one more stage than those behind him who didn’t.
“It is like it is, rallying is bullsh*t sometimes.
Nevertheless it is what it is and the clerk of the course had the difficult job of allocation notional times.
Neuville’s Hyundai was already carrying battle scars but he would add to them in this stage also, on a fast section he clipped a bank and spun. Clearly his damaged aero coupled with his wrecked tyres was causing him some grief but that wasn’t his only moment in this stage, he followed that spin up with an over shoot.
“We have no tyres left, we started the stage on slicks so it was un-drivable. We are just trying to survive!”
Latvala’s Yaris was now windscreen-less but that clearly wasn’t holding him back, according to him “The car is perfect” and “goes like a dream”; in his many years of rallying he claims that he has never made such a stupid mistake before.
Sordo who was one of the drivers who didn’t take on SS7 and would benefit from fresher tyres compared to what Tanak had and he would put them to good use by winning stage 8 to take the overall lead. Sordo acknowledged this as being a little unfair to Tanak, but to be truthful it was out of his hands really.
Unfortunately for Latvala, he would not complete the final stage of the day, in a rather odd off he ends yet another torrid day with a DNF. His team mate Tanak ended the day in second but it was obvious that he was upset about the unfortunate cancelling of stage 7.
Hyundai’s number one driver Neuville would have been glad to see the back of the day, his rather second hand looking i20 had made it to the end of the leg. Deep down he knew that the chance of victory was more than likely gone but he still believed that he had the chance to fight for a podium. A wrong tyre choice in the morning and once again in the afternoon perhaps were the foundations of his woes which wasn’t helped by that misunderstood pace-note. Team-mate Mikkelsen also had a bad day when it came to choosing the rubber, but on the final stage of the day he decided to give it a push and was rewarded with a stage win. It was the Spaniard Dani Sordo who impressed the most by ending the day in the lead of the rally for the Hyundai team.
In the WRC2Pro class another battle was brewing between the usual suspects. Kalle Rovanpera opened up the day with the first stage win.
However the Norwegian Mads Ostberg strung together three stage wins in the morning but unfortunately due to suffering damage to his C3 R5 in the days opening stage it was actually Jan Kopecký who led the way.
After the mid day service, Rovanpera repeated his mornings stage win on the repeated run to regain the WRC2 Pro lead and end the first full day at the top of the timesheets. While Ostberg did continue to win stages in the afternoon posting fastest times in stages 7 and 8 once again, ultimately his opening stage time loss was just too much to get back in the fight.
The longest day of the event faced the crews for Leg 2 with long road sections out to the central northern part of the Island with nearly 145km across 3 classic stages to be repeated in the afternoon. Opening up this long hot day was the Coiluna – Loelle test, a 15km stage featuring that famous Reno’s jump.
Overnight rally leader Dani Sordo would put in some effort in an attempt to keep Ott Tanak behind him, but from the off Tanak was showing his intentions with a sizable win on the day’s opening stage. Beating Sordo by 6.5 seconds and overtaking Teemu Suninen for second, he slashed Sordo’s lead. Tanak, who had opted for a mix of hard and medium compound tyres followed that up with another win in the longest stage of the day, the lunar landscape Monti di Alà; again beating Sordo to close the gap up even further.
Despite having a stall, Tanak rounded off the mornings loop by winning SS12 Monte Lerno making it a clean sweep of stage wins to lead the rally at the mid day service. While Tanak was overtaking Sordo for the lead, Ogier was having another shocker of a day. Hitting another rock in SS11 and damaging his suspension which left him crawling through the stage and the following Monte Lerno stage.
“There was a rock and I hit it straight. I thought it was only a puncture but the arm was damaged. We should be able to get back to service.”
In the scorching Sardinian sun the battle for 4th place was heating up between Elfyn Evans and Andreas Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen got the better of Evans in SS11 Monti di Alàbut Evans would respond to him and take the 4th place straight back on the final stage of the mornings loop where Mikkelsen ran wide and clipped a wall near to the finish of the stage.
Refreshed and rehydrated after service, in the coolness of the late afternoon Ott Tanak once again had “The Feeling” winning the first stage of the afternoon (Coiluna – Loelle) to eke out that bit more of an advantage over Dani Sordo.
“I am still pushing – the gap is still very small. I’m in the same rhythm as this morning.”
By now the realization that Tanak was un-stoppable was starting to set into the mind of Sordo.
“My time is not so bad, fighting with Ott is so difficult but we will try our best.”
The fresh combination of Teemu Suninen and Jarmo Lehtinenen continued to flourish into the afternoon, clearly the experience of Jarmo had calmed Teemu, allowing him to relax and just drive. Their strong performance throughout the day protected their 3rd place overall from battle behind them between team mate Elfyn Evans and Andreas Mikkelsen.
“I tried to take care of the car and stay in a good rhythm.”
Although Sordo was putting in a cracking performance Tanak once again appeared to be in a class of his own, wining Monti di Alà and Monti Lerno the final stage of the day to lead the rally by almost 26 seconds heading into the final day.
Skoda’s Kalle Rovanpera continued to lead the WRC2Pro class ahead of team-mate Jan Kopecký, despite Mads Ostberg winning every stage of the day, Ostberg was no threat due to his issues the previous day.
Heading into Sunday the final day of the rally with more than 25 seconds lead over Dani Sordo, Ott Tanak was on course to secure his third rally win of the year or was he?
Out to prove a point and potentially fighting for his future seat, Hyundai’s Andreas Mikkelsen opened up the day with a stage win on SS16 Cala Flumini in his ongoing battle for 4th place with Elfyn Evans. Despite only 42km of stages left on the final day, he still believed there was an outside chance to pass Evans and went all out for it by winning the second stage of the morning edging ever closer to Evans.
“It will be difficult – let’s keep the pressure and we will see.”
Meanwhile Tanak was extending his lead over Sordo and on the penultimate stage while everyone else were conserving their tyres ready for the Power Stage, Mikkelsen secured yet another stage win putting Evans under threat for the final power stage show down.
The scene was set at what is possibly the most picturesque Power Stage on the entire World Rally Calendar, on the sandy coastline of Argentiera, on the north eastern edge of Sardinia, another dramatic end to a World Rally would play out.
Mads Ostberg delivered yet another full complement of WRC2 Pro stage wins on the final day of the rally to make a statement to the Skoda team. If it wasn’t for his huge time loss on the first proper stage of the rally on the Friday morning he would have more than likely been on the top spot of the podium.
“I think we deserved to win but that’s how it is. We have been faster than anybody else by minutes so that’s positive.”
Czech rallying legend Jan Kopecký initially put up a decent fight with team-mate Kalle Rovanpera on the Friday leading the class by the end of the first full day. However he couldn’t keep the young Fin at bay and on Saturday Rovanpera reeled him in to take the lead and eventually taking his third win of the season.
Sardinia was the third victory in a row for Rovanpera and see’s him extend his lead in the WRC2 Pro standings to 111, 13 points ahead of Mads Ostberg.
“This is one of the hardest events that I have done. There was really good things that we learned about our driving, pacenotes and also the car. Thanks to the team – great job.”
Citröens Sébastien Ogier had an absolute shocker of a rally, arriving on the island leading the Championship and being first on the road for the opening leg, it was always going to be a big ask for any kind of result here. Ultimately it was a rare mistake from the six times Champ on stage 5 that would see him wave good bye to any chance of scoring even a reasonable amount of points.
Ogier blasted off into the Power Stage without a care in the world, he had nothing to lose and thus was not worried about potentially breaking the car either as he laid down an aggressive run on the now pretty rough beach side stage. Finishing off a rally to forget, way down in 42nd overall after super rallying twice, he secured the second fastest time on the power stage which would at least earn him a handful of un-expected points.
“It’s not a positive weekend for us but that’s motorsport, we have to accept it. We will come back in Finland and try to fight back.”
Championship rival Thierry Neuville had high hopes for Sardinia, after the thrilling end here last year when he beat Ogier by just 0.7 seconds in an astonishing final stage victory.
He really needed a repeat of that win but instead it was a lackluster performance resulting in a disappointing 6th overall, which in no way aided his championship campaign, at least a third in the Power Stage boosted his points just a little.
“We pushed as hard as we can, I struggled all weekend with the handling. Not a great weekend.”
The power stage offered up a final short 6.89km for Andreas Mikkelsen to get Elfyn Evans and amazingly he did just that by winning the Power Stage. Mikkelsen who is under immense pressure to start delivering for his Hyundai team had a bad start to the rally on the Friday, with terrible tyre choices hurting him badly.
A man who is perhaps loitering on the brink of being dropped from further rallies in the future or even worse being released from his contract altogether never gave up in Sardinia. By winning all four of the final days stages, he recovered what was looking like another bad rally and was rewarded with what was to be the third spot on the podium. But don’t be fooled by this result, he is by no means out of the woods just yet and the next event after the summer break, is Finland which will be another rally where he will be under tough scrutiny by the boss.
“We gave it a massive push on the final morning in an effort to cut the gap to Elfyn, Taking all four stage wins (on Sunday) was a fantastic feeling. We would have been content to take fourth. Unfortunately, Ott had his issues, which then handed us a podium finish – an unexpected but very welcome bonus.”
And so at the stop line of the Power Stage the young Welshman learned of the disappointment that Mikkelsen had beaten him on the final stage of the rally. Following a tough battle between the two, the M-Sport man really thought that he had done enough to keep the Norwegian behind him. 5th in the Power Stage added to his 4th overall, was an alright result for Elfyn Evans but compared to his team-mate, Teemu Suninen it perhaps should really have been the 3rd spot behind him.
“It’s really disappointing to have missed out by such a small margin. It’s difficult right now, but it’s still a good result and we’ve strengthened our position in the championship.”
The young Fin Suninen couldn’t possibly have hoped for such a result when arriving in Sardinia with veteran Jarmo Lehtinenen beside him calling the notes for the first time. A stellar performance from the pair had delivered a strong result, one that Jarmo would no doubt enjoy just as much as Teemu. Second on the podium was an unexpected but more than satisfying result, let’s see what the pair can do in Finland, their home event.
“It was a good rally. It looks like the cooperation is really good now.”
Dani Sordo entered the power stage in second place expecting to bring it home with a solid performance for the second spot on the podium. He didn’t want to risk losing anything so kept it clean on the final stage but as he reached the stop line a message from the team appeared on his phone. It read “Tanak stopped in stage!”.
When Dani relayed that information to the end of stage reporter live on TV, the World of rallying all gasped in horror. The cameras cut to a replay of Tanak who had suffered power steering failure and was stuck on a fence at the side of the stage trying to get the Yaris out and going again in the hope that he would at least make it to the end to salvage some points
It was unbelievable that on the final stage of the event, where Ott Tanak had once again obliterated the competitions in what was his 100th World Rally start, would cruelly lose the win so close to the end of such a tough rally.
Tanak used all of his strength to man handle the Yaris around the very rough stage to the finish, where he could speak no words; but only hold his head in his hands.
Once again the World of Rallying had dealt a cruel blow in dramatic fashion to rob a well deserved driver of a well earned victory within reach of the finish line, just like what happened to Elfyn Evans in Corsica earlier in the year.
“It’s unbelievable. I don’t have words to describe this. Even with Tanak’s mistake, it’s amazing to win. I’m sorry for Ott.”
And so the Spaniard Dani Sordo took up the top step on the podium for Hyundai, for what unbelievably is only his second victory in his long WRC career which spans some 164 events. Next to him, M-Sport’s Teemu Suninen in second and team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen in third.
Following the Champagne on the beach all that was left for Sordo to do was head back to Alghero for the traditional winners dip in the sea to celebrate.
Ott Tanak still dragged the Yaris home for 5th place overall and thanks to the terrible time that his main championship rivals Ogier and Neuville had; he leads the drivers’ standings. Tanak (150 pts) leads, Ogier (146 pts) by just four points, with Neuville (143 pts) behind a further three.
Hyundai (242 pts) now stretch out an impressive lead over Toyota (198 pts) in the Manufacturers standings on their way to possibly that first title that they are so desperately seeking?
The FIA World Rally Championships now enters a summer break before heading to the infamous fast and flowing roads of Finland for the Grand Prix on Gravel in front of huge rally mad fans.
Words By Andy Cook – Xlerate
Photos By Jaanus Ree © Red Bull Content Pool