This year’s Rally Italy on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia is carrying extra weight than normal as the penultimate counter on a seven-event schedule. With the title run-in reaching its vital stages, no driver can afford any slip-ups.
But unfortunately for the World Rally Championship’s finest, Sardinia is one of the easiest venues on the WRC’s world tour to slip-up on. The searing heat – which admittedly might not be an issue in October this season – the narrow and demanding stages and the unforgiving nature of the scenery makes Rally Italy a true challenge of man and machine.
There have been plenty of iconic moments over the years, not least last year when Dani Sordo stole victory from the jaws of Ott Tänak when the steering on his Toyota jammed.
But here are five moments from Sardinia’s rich history that you may have forgotten.
When Marcus Grönholm got lost
Marcus Grönholm’s WRC career can be split into four quarters: the early years; the golden years with Peugeot; the disastrous years with Peugeot, and the Ford era. This particular Sardinia moment falls slap bang into the disastrous Peugeot period, where “Bosse” was having to pedal a fundamentally flawed 307 WRC.
In truth, nobody could touch new World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb’s Citroën Xsara WRC across 2005 as he won 10 of the 16 rallies; and Sardinia was one of them. But it was Grönholm’s red French machine that led the way in the early phases as he and co-driver Timo Rautiainen constructed a 14.6 second lead over Loeb after two stages.
That would however all change on the third when the big Finn could only muster up the 34th fastest time.
That’s because Grönholm had overcooked his entry to a right-hander and rolled his 307 WRC down a bank; the car resting on its side. Nearby onlookers were quick to right the Peugeot but bizarrely, that’s when the real confusion began.
Grönholm had landed on an access road below the stage, but didn’t know how to return to the test. As he fired the 307 WRC back up, he opened the door, looked around and shouted: “Which way!? Which way!? Which way!? Direction!?”
Eventually he found his way and would end up finishing the rally in third behind Loeb and Petter Solberg’s Subaru, but it wasn’t the two-time champion’s finest moment.
Hayden Paddon almost won
Hayden Paddon’s breakthrough victory on Rally Argentina in 2016 is often remembered, but it’s sometimes forgotten that his breakthrough performance actually came a year earlier in Sardinia.
Heading to Italy, Paddon had been a strong performer for Hyundai’s second team – Hyundai Motorsport N – but had never looked to be troubling the dominant Volkswagens of Sébastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen.
That all changed in Sardinia when he blasted to an 8.8s overnight lead over Ogier on Friday, with his closest Hyundai colleague – Thierry Neuville – some 1m51.7s back in sixth.
Paddon’s surprise form continued into Saturday (meaning there could be no argument about him simply being fast because of road position) as he narrowly edged Ogier across Saturday morning, only for a spin and gearbox trouble to depose him from the lead late in the day.
A frustrated Paddon banged the steering wheel with emotion as co-driver John Kennard did his best to console his driver, saying: “It’ll come again.” Kennard was right, it would come again, but this was a bittersweet moment for Paddon who took his maiden WRC podium with second in the knowledge that it could have easily been much more.
Mini made its WRC return
Some of the most iconic images of early rallying history are of Paddy Hopkirk steering his lightweight Mini Cooper S to victory on the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally. So Mini fancied rekindling those memories in 2011 and linked up with Prodrive to return to the WRC, with round five in Sardinia the first of its appearances with the John Cooper Works WRC.
Dani Sordo had signed from Citroën but it was team-mate Kris Meeke who was grabbing the headlines, setting the third fastest time on the car’s second ever competitive stage to lie fourth overall.
But it was all over on SS3 when Meeke’s JCW WRC drifted off the road through a fifth-gear right-hander and lost a wheel. “I came into this fast corner, went to lift off and brake and the car just pushed on so I had no chance,” Meeke said.
He would restart on Saturday but retired with mechanical issues. Sordo provided some reprieve by salvaging sixth. But the Sardinian escapade encapsulated Mini’s ultimately lackluster WRC return.
Ford potentially costs Hirvonen a championship
The 2009 iteration of Rally Italy was a highly contentious one with running order tactics at the fore. But it was also an event that, with the benefit of hindsight, can be viewed as a criminally wasted opportunity by the Ford team.
With five of Friday’s six stages completed, Ford’s Latvala headed Sébastien Loeb by 17.2s with Ford team-mate Mikko Hirvonen another 5.3s in arrears. Loeb and Hirvonen – the top two in the championship – both slowed on the leg’s final test with Loeb stationary for a whopping 23s so as not to start Saturday’s stages first on the road.
But Hirvonen made a mess of his calculations, crawling in between the yellow boards and the flying finish – where you’re not allowed to come to a dead stop – and ended the day 3s ahead of Loeb when he would have benefited from dropping behind or extending the gap but taking the hit of running earlier on the road.
That’s what Latvala did. Ford’s number two was given a 39.8s advantage that was slowly eroded but not dramatically. He ended Saturday 9.9s ahead of his team-mate with Loeb down in fifth after a puncture and then a time penalty for co-driver Daniel Elena removing his seat belts when the car was still moving.
Loeb climbed back past Evgeny Novikov to finish fourth but there were no team orders at Ford to gift Hirvonen a win. Latvala duly outpaced Hirvonen to claim his second career victory. The wonders of hindsight are of course precarious, but with Petter Solberg’s privateer Citroën almost two minutes down, Ford could have easily switched the places but that wasn’t its style.
Ultimately though, Hirvonen would lose the 2009 championship by just one point and had he won in Sardinia, he’d have won by one point.
Ogier loses to Neuville in a thrilling finish, and was almost excluded!
Ever since the new technical regulations were introduced in 2017, there have been multiple battles between Ogier and Neuville. But few come close to the finish of Rally Italy in 2018, which on the tension stakes, ranks higher than perhaps any other WRC round in history. It was palpable.
M-Sport driver Ogier inherited the lead on Friday when Mikkelsen’s gearbox broke and opened up a decent lead over Neuville, who rearranged the rear of his i20 Coupe WRC with a wild moment. Tänak exited the contest after breaking his Toyota’s radiator over a jump.
The Hyundai-driving Belgian hit back on Saturday to diminish his deficit to Ogier from 18.9s to 3.9s with just Sunday’s four stages remaining after Ogier “struggled with the car” at points. The fight was on.
Predicting who would win was tough, as Neuville had become something of a final stage specialist having stolen victory from Elfyn Evans on Rally Argentina 2017 but Ogier too was renowned for his blistering speed when it mattered.
As it turned out, it was Ogier that was rattled with Neuville in the ascendancy. Neuville won SS17, 18 and 19 – but only just – to head into the powerstage a mere 0.8s behind Ogier. But the drama wasn’t done there.
Ogier and co-driver Julien Ingrassia forgot to collect their timecards back from the stage-end marshal on the penultimate stage. Tänak and his co-driver Martin Järveoja collected them on Ogier’s behalf and brought them to the regroup so he was still in the rally, but it wasn’t exactly ideal prep for a final stage shoot-out.
Neuville pounced. Unhappy that Ogier wasn’t excluded as he didn’t carry his own timecards, he decided to let his driving do the talking and stormed to the rally win by 0.7s. It was a proper alpha moment for Neuville and one of the most impressive of his 13 career wins to date.