Thierry Neuville finally wins his first rallye after two years of chasing Ogier on winding Italian gravel roads after an impressive weekend.
Three weeks after Kris Meeke’s phenomenal victory at Rallye Portugal the next run on the mediterranean island of Sardegna, Italy was about to take place. The service park was located in Alghero in the north-west whose old town is a well-known tourism magnet.
The rallye is considered one of the hottest and roughest events in the WRC and was included into the calendar in 2004 where Petter Solberg finished first in his Subaru Impreza WRC. In the years 2013 to 2015 Sébastien Ogier managed to achieve 3 consecutive wins with Volkswagen but as the other teams grew stronger, he knew it would not be that easy anymore.
After Ogier won the first spectator stage on Thursday eight special stages were on the schedule for Friday. This day was dominated by Hyundai driver Thierry Neuville who won five out of eight stages and put himself into top spot after SS7. Still in fighting distance, the Fin Jari-Matti Latvala pushed his limits to keep up the enormous pace set by the Belgian. Meanwhile Ogier and his team mate Andreas Mikkelsen struggled not to lose too much time to the second place and positioned themselves in third and fourth place after over 100 km stage length on Friday.
Besides the battle for the podium many drivers had problems on the tricky Italian roads – Valeriy Gorban crashed his Mini John Cooper Works WRC on SS2 being unable to continue the stage but later that afternoon his crew repaired the damage and he could see the finish line on Sunday. Ironically Yazeed Al-Rajhi from Saudi Arabia went off-road at the exact same spot and later on had to retire on SS19 due to a mechanical problem.
Hayden Patton from New Zealand who wanted to prove that his victory in Argentina was not a one-time action was knocked out of the skies after he crashed in Portugal. Disaster did not seem to stop for him in Italia when he slipped in a left corner, hit a tree with his right rear tire and went 25 m down into the bush.
The next day went all well for Neuville and he was able to take advantage of his good road position – unlike Sébastien Ogier who had the unfortunate disadvantage of starting first and clearing the road for the rest of the cars. Although Estonian Ott Tänak, Norwegian Mads Østberg and Latvala each won a stage nobody managed to get closer to Neuville whose speed was extraordinarily fast. Still, he did not think about slowing down to secure his win because he was still being chased by Latvala who was just waiting for an opportunity to pass him on the leaderboard.
„Jari never gives up. […] I had a clean run, really enjoyed, but it’s getting rough for the second pass.“
On Sunday, the rallye was almost over with not much to change. Ogier did risk attacking his teammate in front of him and only drove safely to secure his podium place: „All okay. Nothing changed for us, just trying to save the tires. The next one is not the sort of Power Stage I’d like to push on but for sure one or two points would be good.“
Nevertheless, he was the one to win the 3 points on the Power Stage that were a welcome addon to his third place. But the real winner of 13º Rally Italia Sardegna was a blissfully happy Thierry Neuville with his last victory already 2 years ago on German tarmac. He dedicated his first place to his former mentor Philippe Bugalski who would have had birthday exactly on that 12th June.
Following the celebration ceremony Thierry and his crew cooled off in traditional style by jumping into the water of the harbor. This event marked a special achievement in the WRC history because this was the first time since 2001 that 5 consecutive rallyes were won by 5 different drivers, at that time including legends like Colin McRae, Tommi Mäkinen, Markus Grönholm or Richard Burns.
But today those are the names of some heroes of our generation: Sébastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala, Kris Meeke, Hayden Paddon and Thierry Neuville. This season maybe promises to get more interesting that anyone thought.