Two drivers dominating. It was the case for two decades in the World Rally Championship: anyone not named Sébastien was up against it.
It’s also been the case in Italy. Rarely in the last 20 years has anyone other than Paolo Andreucci or Giandomenico Basso been champion.
But last week’s Rally di Roma Capitale marked a shift. Perhaps, the era of duality is coming to a close.
Andrea Crugnola, the 2020 champion, remains a protagonist in the title race. And until recently, so too did Basso. But there is a third name making himself a title contender for the first time: Damiano De Tommaso.
On paper, the turning point in the season came when De Tommaso scored his maiden win at Italy’s top level at the Targa Florio in May. Not only was it his first – it was worth 50% more points than every other round bar the season finale, Rally Due Valli.
But ask the man himself and that’s not how he feels. Rome, also a European Rally Championship round, was a much more important win. Keeping his cool under pressure was far harder in Rome than during that first win in Sicily.
“In the last stage, the Fiuggi stage, there was a helicopter on the roof for the live TV,” De Tommaso explained to DirtFish. “I felt more when we went on the end of the last stage. I don’t even know how to say in Italian! Un’emozione. It’s magic.
“Compared to Targa Florio, this was more exciting. I was happier. I can’t explain it.”
It was the same story in the co-driver’s seat for Giorgia Ascalone. Like De Tommaso, this is her first time competing at the sharp end of a national championship fight.
“This last rally has been the hardest of my life,” said Ascalone. “The stakes were so high. The pressure was so high. I’m not an experienced co-driver at all; it was my 60th rally.”
By comparison, this year’s Rally di Roma was the 205th event for Crugnola’s co-driver Pietro Ometto, and the 333rd for Basso’s navigator Lorenzo Granai.
And yet it was the most experienced crew of them all that repeatedly ran into trouble, while De Tommaso capitalized.
Basso has been playing catchup all season after his switch to the semi-works Hyundai squad. Alzenau dispatched a brand new i20 N Rally2 to Friulmotor for him to use but, thus far, he’s only been able to score one podium all year.
It had already begun to fall to pieces in Rome before the rally had even formally gotten underway. Basso was excluded from the qualifying stage for a jump start.
Then came the Colosseum superspecial. Basso went fastest ahead of De Tommaso. Except Basso had jump-started again and a 10-second penalty was accrued by the defending Italian champion.
Why? He’d been distracted. He was having to manually set the revs each time for his car’s launch control and it had been either too low or too high. He was too busy checking the dashboard to keep his full focus on the lights going out in front of him.
And then the unimaginable happened. Basso jump-started yet again on stage two. Three jump starts in a row by one of Italy’s most successful rally drivers. A one-minute penalty was applied.
Any hope of a surprise comeback to the top of the order vanished when, on the final corner of the Fiuggi stage, he ran wide, lost control and crashed into a wall, wiping out the flying finish timing system in the process. It was a messy end to a messy rally.
De Tommaso didn’t need asking twice. He jumped to the front immediately and pulled away on Saturday morning. Crugnola got him back later – only to suffer a throttle problem and lose a minute.
A mere 9.5 points separate Crugnola and the chasing De Tommaso in the title race. A first championship is very much in the offing.
Targa Florio is a historic rally but there weren't drivers from the ERC there, only Italian drivers.Damiano De Tommaso on why Rally di Roma win means the most
Yet neither he nor Ascalone were thinking about that. They’d eaten into Crugnola’s points lead but it was Simone Campedelli, Yoann Bonato and Efrén Llarena they were celebrating beating in a straight fight.
“For me it’s completely different [to winning Targa Florio] because Roma was an FIA ERC event,” said De Tommaso. “It’s more important for me and Giorgia.
“Targa Florio is a historic rally but there weren’t drivers from the ERC there, only Italian drivers. In Rally di Roma Capitale there were important drivers from Europe.”
It’s easy to understand the temporary distraction. It is undoubtedly the biggest result of their careers – even though both have WRC starts to their names.
But with a championship opportunity on the line, De Tommaso has found something extra. The gap to Crugnola and Basso has been closed.
“We needed to improve to drive very well in the next two rallies, 1000 Migilia and Due Valli. Now is an important moment for us and for the team. This victory was important for the points; we can put more pressure on Crugnola.”
The Italian off-season was a merry-go-round at the top of the championship. Crugnola left Hyundai and went back to the Citroën C3 with which he’d won the Italian title the year before, while Basso ditched the Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo to take up Crugnola’s vacated seat.
To finish off the game of musical chairs, De Tommaso reverted back to a car he knew well in the Fabia, having piloted the same Citroën that Crugnola had won the title with in 2020 during last season.
In a season where the reigning champion risked taking on a new project, stability for De Tommaso has paid off.
“I believe it’s simply because this is my second year in the Italian championship using a Rally2 car, so I’m putting to good use both my experience and the knowledge of the roads that I now have from last year,” De Tommaso said. “And being very young, it seems purely logical to me.”
There’s still more learning to do. When De Tommaso went into preservation mode to keep the lead, his times began to drop off – he was only 11th-fastest on the powerstage. The nerves of getting a victory with that helicopter following them like a hawk were hard to suppress.
“It was relieving as it had been a week [of work], a crazy one,” said Ascalone of finally crossing the Fiuggi finish line. “The pressure was very high.
“We tried to manage the seconds that we had compared to second place but it was quite hard. When you have to keep the lead that you have, not going too fast, not taking risks but then not going too slow. I believe that’s the hardest part.”
Come the 1000 Miglia in a month’s time, De Tommaso and Ascalone will revert to being the hunters, rather than the hunted. But this time, there is no Andreucci or Basso to catch. Experience may not be the deciding factor after all.