2018 Rally Italia Sardegna: Analysis – Advantage Neuville


Credit: Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

6.96km. Not a large distance in anyone’s book, least of all when at the wheel of a four-wheel drive be-winged ‘supercar’ with very nearly 400bhp, and yet Thierry Neuville made it work. Less than 7km was all the Belgian needed to overhaul his championship rival to take victory in Rally Italia Sardegna 2018, and he almost made it look easy; catching and passing the 5 time World Rally Champion on the final stage of the final day, Sassari, the Powerstage. His winning margin was 0.7 seconds, the third closest finish in World Rally Championship history (a repeat of the gap between himself and Elfyn Evans in Argentina last year, stat fans), ample proof of just how tightly contested this year’s championship is proving to be.

Few would’ve felt confident in predicting the result of Rally Italia Sardegna in the days leading up to the event, not with so many would-be winners in the 2018 ranks, not after the topsy-turvy drama provided by Rally Portugal less than three weeks ago, and so it proved. An early rally charge by Hyundai’s Andreas Mikkelsen was cruelly halted in the dying hours of Friday, while Ott Tanak’s attempts to the put the pain of Portugal behind him were dashed by yet another Yaris failure, this time inflicted by a bone-crushing landing after a jump. Add in Friday morning’s freakish weather, including low hanging clouds that lent the Med-based event a distinct mid-Wales in November flavour, and it’s plain that Rally Italia Sardegna 2018 was really rather special – and that’s before we touch upon the thrilling, near event-long squabble between the leading title contenders!.

Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team

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While no one at Hyundai, be they based in Germany or back home in Korea, will be upset by their lead driver being able to add another victory to his tally, it’s also probably true that they’ll have more than a few mixed emotions, a result of Andreas Mikkelsen’s gut-wrenching retirement on Friday afternoon.

It’s impossible to say that a rally is ‘in the bag’ so early on in a modern WRC event (the championship is simply too competitive for that), but Mikkelsen’s performance on Friday’s opening loop meant that it was very much his to lose. He’d done much of the hard work already, carving out a full ten seconds on the first pass through Tula and appeared to have finally re-captured the illusive form which made him such a key part of VW’s WRC onslaught a few years back, so few would’ve bet against him adding another victory to his CV.

Fate had other ideas though, the i20’s gearbox giving warning that all was not well on the second run through Tula, the opening stage of Saturday’s afternoon leg. Things came to a head on the very next stage, the i20 stopping for several minutes in the middle of SS7 and robbing Mikkelsen of any chance of victory. The car was out for the day, and while the crew would be back under Rally 2 rules the very next day, Mikkelsen must now be wondering what on earth he must do in order for his luck to change.

No such concerns for Mikkelsen’s team mate though, Italy proving to be the finest Neuville performance since Sweden back in March, quite possibly the most impressive drive of his career to date. It was also a result which re-affirmed his position as Sebastien Ogier’s most complete successor. A future World Champion? With performances like this, it’s only a matter of time.

Neuville overcame tricky, soaking wet conditions on Friday (conditions which partially neutered the disadvantage of running first on the road, it must be said) to emerge as Ogier’s closest challenger as the weekend progressed. It would’ve been all too easy to drive in an impetuous manner, to have thrown it away in an attempt to wrest the position from Seb on Saturday afternoon, and you could argue the Neuville of old might well have done this. That he didn’t is indicative of a new, more rounded Neuville, one content to wait until the perfect time to deliver the killer blow.

Neuville judged that time to be Sunday morning, whereupon he set about ripping apart Ogier’s lead, reducing a near 4 second deficit to 0.8 seconds by the end of the penultimate stage, before converting that to a 0.7 second lead by the end of the Powerstage to take a stunning win. Emphatic scenes duly followed at the end of the stage, the service park and Alghero harbour, all involved only too aware of the significance of the result. There can be no better way for Neuville to go into the WRC’s summer break, and no handier a springboard for this year’s drivers’ title.

Hayden Paddon couldn’t hope to match the pace of either of his team mates in Sardinia, but then he wasn’t really trying to, only too aware that his career simply couldn’t take another dramatic, i20-bending exit from a WRC round. The Kiwi instead opted to take a leaf out of Dani Sordo’s book, driving a calm and collected rally to emerge with a handy fourth position when the dust settled. Just what the doctor (and Hyundai top brass) ordered.

M-Sport Ford World Rally Team

Perhaps the most telling aspectof Neuville’s Sunday performanceoccurred away from the stage, at the very end of SS19 Cala Flumini, the penultimate test of the rally. Aware that his scant lead had been cut by a further half a second and with the all important Powerstage lent further significance by Neuville’s pace, the Frenchman blinked, setting off from control without his time card. While the all important paperwork was duly brought to the start of Sassari by a fellow driver (supposedly Tanak) this constituted outside assistance in the eyes of the event organisers, and both Ogier and Julien Ingrassia were subsequently fined €10,000and given a suspended punishment, meaning they’ll be docked their Sardinian’s points should a similar infraction occur before the end of the year.

Of course the odds of Ogier committing a similar infraction between now and November are slight, but there can be little doubt that this public ‘dropping of the ball’ was a sign that Neuville’s performance had an impact on the champion. You could never say that Ogier was rattled (not when he came from behind, led the majority of the rally and was beaten by less than a second), but it was nevertheless a chink in the armor of the most complete WRC driver of the current generation.

M-Sport will no doubt be pleased that Ogier was able to bring home such a handy haul of points, as both Elfyn Evans and Teemu Suninen struggled on the island’s rough, boulder strewn roads. Evans had his event well and truly compromised by hitting a bank on the very first stage, fighting back to end the rally in a lonely fourteenth. Suninen buried his Fiesta into the Sardinian undergrowth late on Saturday and was forced to complete the event under Rally 2 rules, ending Sunday in tenth place.

Ogier’s ability to extract as much as possible from tricky scenarios is beyond doubt but the same cannot be said for M-Sport’s supporting cast of drivers, and it’s beginning to harm the Cumbrian’s outfit’s Manufacturers’ title ambitions. Hyundai’s lead going into the summer break stands at 28 points, a not insurmountable tally, granted, but enough of a lead to cause Malcolm and co concern. Both Evans and Suninen will have to up their respective games in the second half of the season, for the sake of their team and also their careers.

Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team

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This season really hasn’t gone to plan for Toyota; 2018 was supposedly the year in which the trio of Yaris emerged as the dominant force in World Rallying, fully prepared and with all reliability gremlins utterly banished, yet this simply hasn’t been the case. Sardinia provided yet more evidence the Yaris remains weaker than its maker would like, with Ott Tanak retiring from Saturday after a heavy post-jump landing (it broke both front radiators and decimated the car’s cooling system), and if Jari-Matti Latvala’s retirement on Saturday is anything to go by, its electrical systems. They’d end the rally in seventh and ninth respectively, the former’s title ambitions dealt a hefty blow in the process.

Not for the first time in his short WRC career to date, Esapekka Lappi was left to uphold Toyota honor, and he went about it in cool, calm, typically Finnish style. Lappi and the Yaris were far more at home on the faster, dryer stages of Saturday and Sunday, meaning he was able to overhaul Latvala (before his retirement) and consolidate his grip on third overall, a place he’d hold to the end.

Citroen Racing World Rally Team

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Italy was always going to be a difficult event for Citroen for obvious reasons, but it could have been worse. Both C3 WRCs finished and finished in the points, Mads Ostberg leading the pair in fifth, Craig Breen well over a minute further back in sixth. Ostberg was clearly more at home in both the car and on the stages, able to dice with the Hyundai of Paddon for much of the event, and while he ultimately had to cede fourth place to the Kiwi, he’ll no doubt feel happier with his performance than Breen. The Irishman struggled to find a pace and a suitable setup, then had much of his Saturday compromised by a snapped Anti-Roll Bar. You’ll not find a more fitting metaphor for Citroen’s season thus far.

WRC2

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For a good portion of Rally Italia Sardegna, it appeared as if Citroen honor was to be upheld by the C3 R5 of Stephan Lefebvre, the Frenchman using the car to good effect throughout Friday’s opening loop. It wasn’t to last, suspension failure midway through SS11 Monti Di Ala on Saturday halting the C3 and promoting Skoda’s Jan Kopecky to a lead he’d maintain until the end of the rally, claiming his third WRC2 win of 2018 and slashing the gap to championship leader Pontus Tidemund to 18 points in the process.

Kopecky’s eventual margin was over three minutes, with the sister car of Ole Christian Veiby claiming the runner up spot from Hyundai’s Nicolas Ciamin on the penultimate stage of the rally, rounding off yet another dominant display from Skoda’s potent WRC2 outfit. The Fabias of Fabia Andolfi and Lukasz Pieniazek were fourth and fifth, both promoted up the order late on Sunday thanks to Pierre-Louis Loubet shedding over two minutes on the second pass through Cala Flumini.

Final Results

1 – Thierry Neuville – Hyundai i20 WRC – 3:29:18.7
2 – Sebastien Ogier – Ford Fiesta RS WRC – 3:29:19.4
3 – Esapekka Lappi – Toyota Yaris WRC – 3:31:15.0
4 – Hayden Paddon – Hyundai i20 WRC – 3:32:13.9
5 – Mads Ostberg – Citroen C3 WRC – 3:32:29.6
6 – Craig Breen – Citroen C3 WRC – 3:33:50.4
7 – Jari-Matti Latvala – Toyota Yaris WRC – 3:40:40.8 (Rally 2)
8 – Jan Kopecky – Skoda Fabia R5 – 3:42:33.3
9 – Ott Tanak – Toyota Yaris WRC – 3:42:36.9 (Rally 2)
10 Teemu Suninen – Ford Fiesta RS WRC – 3:44:49.1 (Rally 2)
14 – Elfyn Evans – Ford Fiesta RS WRC – 3:47:15.2 (Rally 2)

WRC2

1 – Jan Kopecky – Skoda Fabia R5 – 3:42:33.3
2 – Ole Christian Veiby –Skoda Fabia R5 – 3:45:35.9
3 – Nicolas Ciamin – Hyundai i20 R5 – 3:45:52.0
4 – Fabia Andolfi – Skoda Fabia R5 – 3:49:05.5
5 – Lukasz Pieniazek – Skoda Fabia R5 – 3:49:44.6
6 – Benito Guerra Jr – Skoda Fabia R5 – 4:08:14.4
7 – Kajetan Kajetanowicz – Ford Fiesta R5 – 4:20:29.1 (Rally 2)
8 – Stephane Lefebvre – Citroen C3 R5 – 4:24:57.7 (Rally 2)