Thierry Neuville sits on the brink of his first victory in this season’s FIA World Rally Championship after he took control of Rally Italia Sardegna during an action-packed second leg when eight-time WRC champion Sébastien Ogier was unable to go the distance.
Neuville had trailed Ogier and Esapekka Lappi since the start of this sixth round of the season, but a heavy downpour on the penultimate Erula - Tula test had a significant impact on the leaderboard.
Ogier, hunting down a record fifth Sardinian win in his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 Hybrid, entered the stage clinging onto a slender overall lead. However, in a late twist, the Frenchman's fortunes took a dramatic downturn when he understeered off the road and slipped down an embankment 1.4 kilometres after the start.
Lappi reduced his attack upon seeing Ogier’s stricken car, inadvertently dropping over half a minute to team-mate Neuville, who was unaware of the drama unfolding behind him on the road. The Belgian climbed from third to first overall as a result of his charge and heads a Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid 1-2 by 36.4s approaching tomorrow’s four-stage finale.
“I am relieved to be at the finish,” admitted Neuville, who has not won in the WRC since Rally Japan last November. “It was a tough day but the feeling was getting better and better with the car. We learned a lot, that's important, but it's still not always perfect yet and we can still improve.
“Tomorrow is a short but tricky day,” he added. “We need to have a clever drive through and try to bring home the 1-2 for the team.”
Toyota’s championship leader Kalle Rovanperä was elevated to third at his team-mate’s expense, although the Finn is unlikely to be able to trouble the frontrunning pair on outright pace on Sunday. He trailed Lappi by 1m14.3s at the overnight halt in Olbia after being hampered by excessive tyre wear in the afternoon.
Perseverance paid off for Elfyn Evans, whose day was filled with setbacks. The Welshman’s Toyota sustained radiator damage in a water crossing on SS10 and he leaked almost three minutes limping back to service.
History threatened to repeat itself later in the day when the Welshman’s Yaris momentarily lost power while negotiating another watersplash. However, the misfire cleared itself shortly afterwards and he reached the finish of Saturday’s leg almost four minutes behind Rovanperä in fourth overall.
Ott Tänak and Takamoto Katsuta suffered water-induced retirements. A faulty electrical sensor was to blame for M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid driver Tänak’s exit while Katsuta bowed out with radiator damage. Their respective mishaps enabled Dani Sordo, recovering from a Friday morning roll, to climb to fifth overall.
He heads FIA WRC2 leader Adrien Fourmaux (M-Sport Ford Fiesta Rally2) with Andreas Mikkelsen (Toksport Škoda Fabia RS Rally2) and Teemu Suninen (Hyundai Motorsport N i20 N Rally2) next. Emil Lindholm and FIA WRC Challenger pacesetter Kajetan Kajetanowicz complete the top 10.
Roope Korhonen bounced back from an early roll to lead FIA WRC3 after 15 stages in a Ford Fiesta Rally3 with William Creighton ahead in FIA Junior WRC. Johannes Keferböck is in front in the WRC Masters Cup.
Competitors journey north of Olbia for today’s double-use stages that make up a total of 46.02 timed kilometres. Arzachena – Braniatogghiu, a 15.22-kilometre run from 07:05, is first with the 7.79-kilometre Sardegna test due to go live at 08:05. The early morning stages are repeated at 10:09 and 12:15 respectively with Sardegna 2 forming the 50th Wolf Power Stage from 12:15.
Leading positions after Saturday:
1. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N 3h 10m 36.9s
2. E Lappi / J Ferm FIN Hyundai i20 N +36.4s
3. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota GR Yaris +1m 50.7s
4. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris +5m 36.5s
5. D Sordo / C Carrera ESP Hyundai i20 N +6m 27.9s
6. A Fourmaux / A Coria FRA Ford Fiesta Rally2 +8m 11.7s