After a dominant display from Hyundai’s Ott Tänak and Dani Sordo fell to disaster, Sébastien Ogier rose to the top to lead a Toyota Gazoo Racing 1-2 and win the Rally Italia Sardegna. The result sees the reigning champion extend his lead in the standings to 11 points over Elfyn Evans, who finished the rally 46 seconds behind in a distant second. After five of the FIA World Rally Championship’s 12 events this year, Belgian Thierry Neuville is secured in third in the standings, 28 points ahead of his teammate Tänak and 18 points behind Evans. The Belgian also took third place in the rally, just over a minute behind winner Ogier.
Toyota will be delighted, as they now hold the top two positions in the driver’s standings and top the manufacturer’s standings. However, it could have been a different story this weekend had luck looked more kindly on Ogier’s competitors. Friday looked set to be a tough challenge for Ogier, as he was tasked with clearing the loose gravel of the Sardegna stages. This was down to the fact that the Championship leader heads onto the stages first, and with the surfaces gaining in grip with every runner, Ogier saw himself end the first day half a minute off of the rally lead.
Instead, it was Ott Tänak and Dani Sordo who had an amazing Friday for Hyundai Motorsports. Tänak took the opening three stage wins, Dani Sordo took wins in stage 6 and 7, to keep reigning champion Ogier in third place. Having been just six seconds off the rally lead after the first three stages, Kalle Rovanperä’s rally turned sour as he ended Friday morning with a suspension failure. Elsewhere, there was a disaster for Teemu Suninen, returning to the WRC M-Sport Fiesta, he crashed out on the opening stage, and his rally was over. Elfyn Evans and Thierry Neuville struggled to find the pace to challenge the front runners, the latter lost even more time on stage 7, after clattering a bank, which resulted in his rear right tyre falling off the rim. However, in general, Friday was a great day for Hyundai, with an i20 WRC winning every stage, five of them being Tänak, who took a 19.4-second lead after eight stages.
Early on in Saturday’s running, the tide began to turn. Dani Sordo almost drowned his Hyundai i20 in a water splash during stage nine, gaining damage and losing 15 seconds as a result. Throughout stages 9-12, Elfyn Evans began to gain some form, never falling out of the top three stage times and claiming a stage 11 win. Neuville struggled to keep pace throughout Saturday morning. Things wouldn’t get better for Hyundai, a rock on stage 12 destroyed Ott Tänak’s suspension, and the rally leader was out! Ogier would claim the lead at this point, some 17.5 seconds ahead of Sordo. It then went from bad to worse for Hyundai, Tänak out, Neuville struggling and then Dani Sordo had a wheel ripped from his car on Stage 15. Hyundai’s loss was Toyota’s gain. Ogier lead Evans going into Sunday morning, with Neuville and Takamoto Katsuta being the only remaining WRC competitors in the top 5 of the standings.
On Sunday it was too little too late from Neuville, who did take the win on stage 18. However, due to the misfortune of his teammates and rivals, this performance would help him cement his podium status. Evans would win stage 19, protecting his second place in the standings. Ogier had no issues throughout stages 17-19. Come the Power Stage, there was almost some late drama, with both Toyota drivers suffering a slight scare in the water splash, Evans having to stop to wait for his Toyota to clear itself after taking on too much water. It mattered not, as Toyota Gazoo Racing took a resounding 1-2, strengthening the hold on the top of the drivers and manufacturers standings.
For Ogier, it was his 52nd win and a record-equalling 4th win at Sardegna. He and the rest of the Toyota Gazoo Racing squad will be full of confidence as the WRC makes a sensational return to Safari Rally Kenya, based in Naivasha on 24 – 27 June. It will surely be emotional for fans of the Safari Rally, the first running of the event for the WRC since 2002. It will be down to Ogier and Toyota’s rivals to bounce back there after a difficult running this weekend.