Dani Sordo’s concentration was most definitely elsewhere. He sat at time control 12A of Rally Stars Roma at the wheel of his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC, but he was lost to another world.
It was the world of his next door neighbor. He was watching him on his phone, completely captivated.
Sordo’s co-driver, the utterly lovely Carlos del Barrio, was walking towards the control and saw my attempt to catch his driver’s eye.
“He’s busy,” grinned the Spaniard. “He’s watching Fabio.”
This was no time to bother Sordo. I decided to wait and catch him in service. For the next 20 minutes, Sordo’s eyes barely lifted from the screen of his phone. In the end, I joined him for the last lap of the Andalusian motorcycle Grand Prix and cheered along with him as Petronas Yamaha SRT rider – and Sordo’s Andorran neighbor – Fabio Quartararo powered across the line for a second MotoGP win in seven days.
Once the chequered flag fell, Dani was back. Almost.
“He really likes that track,” said Sordo about Quartararo in Jerez. “He has good points for the championship now, he has to continue. He’s my neighbor you know. He’s a really good guy, he doesn’t know so many people in Andorra so he comes and we do some training together. I’m happy for him.”
Later that afternoon, there was a double celebration for the Principality as Sordo sealed victory on the Fiuggi-based event.
You had to feel for the European Rally Championship organizers, given Rally di Roma’s decision to run the Rally Stars event 20 minutes ahead of the main ERC field. It was a bit like having your entrée (and desert) before the starter. And this part of the world is particularly renowned for its good starters.
Sordo, fellow Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC driver Pierre-Louis Loubet and Pedro’s Ford Fiesta WRC stole the show in Italy. A well-driven Rally2 car is entertaining, but a Rally1 motor at full-bore down some of the narrowest, bumpiest and most technical stages in Europe was a very special sight on Saturday.
It’s probably for this reason – and the presence of WRC Promoter Oliver Ciesla in the service park – that speculation intensified about the potential for Italy’s World Rally Championship round to step off the island of Sardinia and into Rome. Both Sordo and his Hyundai Motorsports team-mate Craig Breen reckoned the roads were good enough to feature at the top of rallying’s tree. We talked to Max Rendina, the man behind the event, about just that prospect. You can read his thoughts on DirtFish in the coming days.
Rendina and his Motorsport Italia team deserve massive congratulations for what they achieved in getting international rallying up and running again for the first time since Rally México in March.
We’ll come to the coronavirus side of things in a moment, but before that, let’s focus on that Rally Stars masterstroke. Bolting a national event to the front of the ERC counter took the profile of his event up to another level, according to the Italian.
Rendina told DirtFish: “It was a great opportunity for the race to make some great international visibility. We have the collaboration to the FIA European Rally Championship, but the participation of Hyundai and M-Sport was a great opportunity for us and it permits us to contact media and international media involved in the World Rally Championship and this is really a great thing for the 2020 edition of this rally.”
But the effort to run a COVID-aware international rally was something which drew respect and admiration in equal measure.
Motorsport Italia runs the event and team manager Bruno De Pianto told DirtFish the constantly evolving nature of the pandemic had caused concerns for his team.
“Since we came from Rally México in March, we have been focusing really much to this rally” De Pianto said. “Things have been changing all of the time, but we were confident that we could make it happen. It’s very nice to come to the end of the rally and see we have done this – there has been a lot of work from a lot of people.”
FIA Regional Rally category manager Jérôme Roussel has been in pretty much constant contact with De Pianto during lockdown and in the run-up to the ERC season-opener.
“What they have achieved has been very impressive,” said Roussel. “They have done so much work on the coronavirus side, it’s been a very big job – but they were always very confident they could make this happen and they’ve done that.
“But as well as what they did on the virus side, the start in Rome was also fantastic. We don’t see this so often in rallies these days – it’s kind of like Rally Spain going to Barcelona, it’s really interesting to take the sport to the people in this way.”
The coronavirus procedures meant no spectators permitted to the service park and every person going into service had their temperature taken and a barcoded pass checking them in and out.
Alexey Lukyanuk began his campaign to take back the European Rally Championship he lost last season with an impressive victory. The Russian’s approach to the ceremonial finish – which included a wild wheelspin drawing smoke from the front wheels only of his Citroën C3 R5 indicated the final loop hadn’t been quite as straightforward as he portrayed.
Vastly experienced local hero Giandomenico Basso was second – but it was third and fourth places that were arguably worthy of most praise.
Oliver Solberg arrived at the start of this event without ever having competed in the conditions which lay in wait. With plenty of pre-event hype about this being his first asphalt event, a few pointed out his entry in Monte-Carlo at the start of the season. Certainly the French Alps in winter feature sealed surfaces, but there’s plenty of snow, ice and slush thrown in there for good measure.
As temperatures knocked on the door or 104 degrees Farenheit on the roads around Rome, verglas was in short supply through the weekend.
There is, of course, a significant difference between a softer, more compliant Monte set-up to the sort of circuit racer-spec the cars went into the stages – especially Sunday’s wider, faster and smoother ones.
Solberg approached the event with typical humility and a genuine question mark over himself. What could he do? He’d made ERC history by becoming the youngest ever winner of an FIA rally on the Latvian gravel last year, but what about asphalt?
“I was asking myself this question as well on the night before the start,” the 18-year-old told DirtFish.
The answer was emphatic. Never lower than third overall from SS5 onwards, the Swede’s speed was exceptional – especially through those tricky Saturday tests – but his consistency and maturity was outstanding. Not only did he find his feet on asphalt, he never looked like putting one of them out of step.
Breen was one place down on Solberg and that the Irishman placed his MRF-tired Hyundai i20 R5 as the first non-Pirelli runner was superb – and a testament to all the hard work the Indian tire firm has put in in the last few months. Cooked by master chemist and tire voodoo magician Fiore Brivio, MRF’s covers were a match for anything in terms of performance and once the durability’s there as well, they will be a genuine force at rallying’s sharpest end.
Like Solberg, Breen came to the start with a question mark over what he could expect from the weekend. In typical fashion, he kept his head down and did precisely the job asked of him.
The Indian-Irish alliance will be one of the talking points of this year’s ERC and the season-opener was a cracker. As is the case in the WRC, service park speculation raised a good number of questions over the coming events. The next round in Latvia, set for August 14-16, will run at the behest of the government’s coronavirus quarantine regulations.
Roussel told DirtFish plans were already being assembled for a change in the point scoring, with 75% points on offer if 25% of the crews couldn’t make it due to being forced to quarantine for a fortnight on arrival in Liepāja.
Further into the season, island events in Azores and Cyprus are both reported to be facing up to complicated financial questions as they look to balance the books on a tourist-free summer.
As is the case with any international series at the moment, bidding farewell to ERC friends in Rome on Sunday night was done with a question mark of its own about when and where the series regulars would reconvene.