It’s well to remember that Ott Tanak’s first ever World Rally Championship victory occurred in Sardinia a mere year ago, and it says much that the young Estonian has since become very much part of the championship furniture, a force to be reckoned with on any surface and on any rally, and a title challenger in his own right. Whether he will be able to add another Italian victory to his CV remains to be seen, but he’ll doubtless seek to put the disappointment of last month firmly behind him on his return to Sardinia.
Dusty, rock-strew, technical stages make up much of the Sardinian route with particularly hefty boulders waiting to greet any driver that dares stray off line. It’s an environment that shares much with Argentina (albeit without quite the same high altitude passes), with more than a few echoes of that former European gravel icon, the Acropolis. The stages will of course degrade as the rally wears on, the top layer of gravel being dispersed by the passing cars to expose an unyielding layer of bedrock, one thats prime for catching out the unwary. All of this is set to a backdrop of immense, 30 degree heat, with temperatures of up to 50 degrees inside the cars themselves.
A short run through the 2km Ittiri Arena Show stage kick things off on Thursday night, but Rally Sardinia ‘proper’ begins the very next day with the 22.3km of Tula, the 14.5km of Castelsardo, the 14.4km of Tergu and the 11km of Monte Baranta. All four stages are re-run in the afternoon loop, giving a total of 122.8km of stage mileage.
As we’ve come to expect in the WRC’s modern era, Saturday forms the longest of the rally with 146.5km of competitive stage mileage. Monte Lerno (21.6km) is up first, followed by Monti di Ala (37.3km) and Coiluna (14.9km). This same trio form the afternoon loop, albeit with another blast through the Ittiri super special sandwiched between SS12 and SS14.
Sunday starts early and commences with Cala Flumini (14km) and Sassari (6.9km), both re-run as the final leg of Rally Sardinia, the latter acting as the Power Stage.
Suspension travel – and lots of it! Teams will do everything they can to limit the potential damage caused by Sardinia’s rough, at times tortuous stages, with a large degree of degradation par for the course as the cars pass through and remove the top layer of sandy soil. The increasing prevalence of ruts and gulliesoften prompts teams to further raise the ride height of their cars as the leg wears on. This is reflected in the choice of tyres, with a good mix of hard and soft rubber expected to make an appearance, all so drivers can strike the correct balance between performance and longevity.
Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team
Toyota will have put the disappointments of Portugal firmly in the past and will now look to get its title ambitions back on track, ideally with a convincing victory. Sardinia was quite kind to the Gazoo team last time out, the Yaris seeming able to overcome its early season heat-soak issues to finish second overall thanks to the efforts of Jari-Matti Latvala. As we’ve already seen, the Yaris has been polished further still over the last twelve months and Toyota can now claim to be in possession of one of the finest gravel cars in the championship, Ott Tanak’s victory in Argentina clear evidence of this.
All three Toyota drivers will of course fancy their chances, though you’d have to assume that, should things go his way of course, the team will favour Tanak at this point in the season. Tanak knows exactly what’s required to win in Sardinia and there’s every chance that he can repeat the feat this time around, particularly if he’s able to drive in anything approaching the manner he did in Argentina. It’s probably true that his Portuguese retirement was nothing more than anomaly, a one-off brought about by a momentary lapse in concentration. If this does indeed prove to be the case, then Tanak’s rivals will have their work cut out to prevent him adding a further Sardinian victory to his CV.
It’s worth pausing to discuss the present state of Latvala’s season, one that’s been well and truly de-railed by a succession of damaging, roll-cage splitting accidents and costly suspension failures. Still, Latvala will be able to take some comfort in the thought that he has won here in the past, albeit at the wheel of a Ford Focus back in 2009.
M-Sport Ford World Rally Team
It’s a measure of just how far M-Sport has come since the dawn of the 2017 season that its double podium result last time out could be seen as anything but brilliant, but that’s where we are. The team will doubtless have hoped for more, and will indeed expect more in Sardinia. To this end it has spent a full 5 days testing on location, a move that serves to underscore the fact that this is a pivotal point in 2018, halfway through and into the ‘meat’ of the European leg of the season.
The good news is that Ogier isn’t exactly known for making unforced errors or for retiring from rallies, his last prior to Portugal being Rally Finland 2017. The team will no doubt feel confident that the champion has got his one retirement of 2018 done and dusted, and that both he and the team can now move forward with their respective title pushes, helped along by the ever improving supporting force that is Suninen and Evans. It should also be noted that Ogier’s previous form in Sardinia, as in most countries visited by the WRC, is impeccable, the Frenchman having notched up wins in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Evans drove a mature rally in Portugal, taking advantage of the high rate of attrition to record his best result of the year to date. It was a sorely needed result, one which should serve to quieten if not silence his critics while also bolstering his team’s battle with Hyundai in the manufacturers’ chase.
Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team
It probably wasn’t how Thierry Neuville and Hyundai envisioned winning Rally Portugal but that’s by-the-by; the history book will show that the Belgian drove through the chaos of Friday and Saturday morning, then set about putting the win beyond reach. In doing so he took control of the head of the drivers’ squabble for the first time since Sweden back in February, and put his rivals on notice.
There’s only one fly in the ointment though, and that’s that Neuville and Hyundai have been in this position before and each time it has failed to go to plan. Frailty at the heart of the i20 WRC played a part in Neuville’s failure to deny Ogier his fifth crown on the trot last year, that’s true enough, but so to did a degree of mental weakness on the part of the team’s number one driver. Neuville’s occasional lapses in mental fortitude haven’t been anywhere near as obvious this year of course but they have bubbled to the surface from time to time, his Mexican temper tantrum a good example. It’s a concerning trait from a team’s perspective, and one which Hyundai will doubtless hope to put to bed once and for all with an emphatic Sardinian performance.
Hyundai’s supporting cast of drivers have had mixed seasons to date and Italy sees another appearance from Hayden Paddon, the Kiwi doubtless seeking to make amends for his early exit last time out. The good news is that he was on the pace in Portugal and even set a fastest stage time on Friday. He often goes well on gravel events like these (he snagged his first ever WRC podium here in 2015) so there’s no doubting his pace, it’s just his consistency which requires a bit of spit and polish, something thrown into stark relief in the wake of Kris Meeke’s sudden dismissal.
Then we have Hyundai’s most recent signing, Andreas Mikkelsen. Power steering failure and associated time infringements blunted his charge last time out, and with the 2019 ‘silly season’ already beginning to step up a gear or two the time is ripe for Mikkelsen to once again show the WRC world that he can be a consistent rally winner.
Citroen Sport World Rally Team
It’s been 18 days since the end of Rally Portugal, comfortably less than three weeks and yet it is a period that’s wrought cataclysmic change for the Citroen World Rally team. It has seen the outfit put through the mill, its PR team subjected to the wrath of the world’s sporting media and its 2018 driver lineup take one hell of a beating, all while under the watchful gaze of the WRC fanbase.
Kris Meeke’s dismissal means that Craig Breen and Mads Ostberg will likely see out the remainder of the season, and also hands both (and Breen in particular) something approaching a golden opportunity. Being able to step up to the mark, ideally by delivering the team a podium (or better) will do Breen’s standing in Citroen’s eyes no harm whatsoever, and could well secure his future for next year. It’s a similar story with Østberg, not least as he brings with him a considerable amount of cold, hard cash, handy for any team, let alone one seeking to recapture past glories.
Happily for both Breen and Ostberg there’s mounting evidence that a corner has been turned in the C3 WRC’s development. It remains the weakest of the new breed of WRC cars, true, but many of its more alarming handling foibles have been identified and removed, certainly if Kris Meeke’s comments at the end of Portugal’s opening leg are anything to go by. A tractable car driven by a pair of talented drivers with favourable starting positions, both with a point to prove? Breen and Ostberg might be worth keeping a beady eye on this weekend, you never know.
The momentum in the battle between Pontus Tidemand and Jan Kopecky swung decisively in the Swede’s favour last time out in Portugal, meaning it’s up to the Czech veteran to arrest the damage this coming weekend. He’ll be aided by the absence of his chief rival but it’s hard to avoid feeling that the cards are stacked against Kopecky at this point, with a near 50 point deficit to make up in the remaining rounds. It’s undoubtedly do able but Kopecky’s fight back will have to begin in earnest in Sardinia.
Other prominent WRC2 entrants include Ole Christian Veiby alongside Kopecky for Skoda, the similar cars of Fabia Andolfi and Lukasz Pieniazek, plus Tommi Makinen’s duo of Fiesta driving Japanese, Takamoto Katsuta and Hiroki Arai. Hyundai and Citroen will continue to develop their respective R5 cars, with Pierre-Louis Loubet and Nicolas Ciamin in the former, Stephane Lefebvre and Simone Tempestini in the latter.
WRC 2018 Rally Italia Sardegna Entry List
1 – Sébastien Ogier – Ford Fiesta WRC
2 – Elfyn Evans – Ford Fiesta WRC
3 – Teemu Suninen – Ford Fiesta WRC
4 – Andreas Mikkelsen – Hyundai i20 WRC
5 – Thierry Neuville – Hyundai i20 WRC
6 – Hayden Paddon – Hyundai i20 WRC
7 – Jari-Matti Latvala – Toyota Yaris WRC
8 – Ott Tanak – Toyota Yaris WRC
9 – Esapekka Lappi – Toyota Yaris WRC
11 – Craig Breen – Citroen C3 WRC
12 – Mads Ostberg – Citroen C3 WRC
13 – Martin Prokop – Ford Fiesta RS WRC
14 – Al-Rajhi Yazeed – Ford Fiesta RS WRC
WRC2 2018 Rally Italia Sardegna Entry List
1 – Jan Kopecky – Skoda Fabia R5
2 – Ole Christian Veiby – Skoda Fabia R5
3 – Takamoto Katsuta – Ford Fiesta R5
4 – Fabio Andolfi – Skoda Fabia R5
5 – Łukasz Pieniążek – Skoda Fabia R5
6 – Louis-Pierre Loubet – Hyundai i20 R5
7 – Hiroki Arai – Ford Fiesta R5
8 – Stéphane Lefebvre – Citroen C3 R5
9 – Nicolas Ciamin – Hyundai i20 R5
10 – Benito Guerra Jr – Skoda Fabia R5
11 – Simone Tempestini – Citroen C3 R5
12 – Kajetan Kajetanowicz – Ford Fiesta R5