Sébastien Ogier knew it could be done. He’d done it. And he’d done it under even more complicated circumstances. But still, he wondered whether his time might have been better spent at home with the family. Rally Italy? A hiding to nothing was a precis of the World Rally Champion’s preview chatter.
And then he won.
But for second time in as many weeks, you have to wonder: was this a Toyota win or a Hyundai loss?
How Ogier fell out of love with Sardinia
It’s questionable whether anybody could fall out of love with Sardinia. It’s a beautiful place, if a wee bit on the warm side for me. But for the seven-time champion, it’s not been the kindest in recent seasons.
You have to go back to 2015 for the last Ogier victory on the Italian island. Since then he’s had three podiums and no wins. And one place in particular has really bugged him for the last couple of years: Sunday afternoon’s four-mile stretch from Sassari to Argentiera. The powerstage. Undoubtedly one of the most picturesque of the season, but also one of the most technically challenging. Certainly if you’re in a Toyota.
Privately, the beach-side blast along Sardinia’s west coast is the place most feared by the Finnish-based team.
Remember Ott Tänak’s powersteering problem in 2019? The one that cost him a near-certain victory. Or Takamoto Katsuta’s monster shunt their last year? The Yaris WRC – more pertinently the suspension that connects car to wheel to road – doesn’t like this place.
For Ogier, there’s 2018, when he lost out to Thierry Neuville by seven tenths of a second on that final test (although that was in a Fiesta).
No wonder Ogier was chipper at the prospect of turning his back on that road.
“In places it’s more like a cross-country stage,” he said. “It’s not one that works for us…”
Three times in the last five years, Ogier has landed into Sardinia leading the championship to open the road. He knows the sweeping story better than anybody. But Neuville’s 2018 win rewrote recent history. The Hyundai driver’s seven-tenth win was done from first on the road.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that Ogier’s 2015 win was done in the worst possible conditions. These days the championship leader is first on the road on Friday. Six years ago – as the FIA sought to end French dominance of the drivers’ title – first in the title race meant two days at the front of the field.
Ogier was a different animal back then. By his own admission, he’s a good bit closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and not quite the rule rebel he once was. Back in the day, he took the governing body on, and even, very briefly, considered quitting. Instead, he stayed and did what he does. He won.
And on Sunday, for the first time since 2015 he won from the front in Italy.
“Honestly,” he told DirtFish, “I know I say this sometimes, but, really, this time I did not expect this.”
How Ogier won (or how Tänak lost)
For the second year in succession, the Italian organizer ran a different format of stages. Instead of running a complete loop of three or four new stages in the morning, then repeating them through the afternoon, they went with two stages repeated before and after lunch. The reason for the change is that each loop demands less marshals, making running the rally slightly more straightforward.
The upshot is that a driver needs to take a more compromised set-up. Ordinarily, the morning means a more hunkered down – as hunkered down as the cars would ever be in Sardinia – racey set-up. Lunch done, the cars generally return to the stages raised in ride height and with a good number of other tweaks to deal with more rutted and rocky roads.
Last weekend, the crews had to work on the cars and evolve the set-up themselves. Ogier’s as good a mechanic as anybody, but what he’s really, really good at is driving with compromise.
Come Friday night, he was smiling. Yes, he was third, but that was more than he’d thought possible. More than half a minute behind the flying Tänak, Ogier accepted edging the Estonian might be a bit much to expect, but he certainly had Sordo in his sights with 16.8 seconds separating the two.
Two stages down on Saturday and he’d elbowed that Hyundai to one side but, going into the second shot at Monte Lerno, he was 40.5s down on Tänak. All things equal, he wasn’t going to beat the 2019 world champion.
Since Saturday morning in Portugal, Tänak had found both a surfable wave and a sweet spot in the i20. He stayed on one and in the other. And when a driver’s there, they can usually do no wrong. Near-misses remain just that. And time’s taken almost at will. That was Tänak for the first half of Sardinia.
Only the unexpected can derail a driver on such form. Something like an unavoidable rock on a quick left-hander. One, for example, like the one Tänak found on stage 12.
This was totally unexpected, but we’ll take it. I knew Ott’s only enemy was himselfSébastien Ogier
In a split second, his rally was over. This was no near-miss. The front-left wheel had taken leave of the Hyundai.
Back in Olbia, Tänak debriefed and disappeared back to the hotel. Team principal Andrea Adamo advised against trying to speak to him…
Ogier looked as surprised as anybody.
“This was totally unexpected,” he told DirtFish, “but we’ll take it. I knew Ott’s only enemy was himself. What can I say? I wasn’t in a fight with him, the gap was too big.”
Asked if that meant he thought Tänak was pushing too hard for a man sitting on a 40-second advantage, Ogier said: “I don’t know. I didn’t see what happened. I cannot judge that. The only thing I mean is when you have this gap, I knew I couldn’t really put him under pressure.
“That’s what I mean: I know that myself in this kind of situation I’d probably not push that hard, maybe he was not pushing hard, maybe it was just an easy drive. But at the end of the day, it was a rough morning already.”
When we did catch up with Tänak, his mood was surprisingly sanguine.
“Two quite confident wins to lose in one go is, for sure, difficult but from the other side it’s good to feel we had the speed and we can control in places,” he said. “The team has helped me a lot and they are really behind to help me to get used to the car and now this year we have done some steps as well. I feel the car is fast, just needs a little more reliability.”
With conflicting reports inside the service park about how big the rock might or might not have been, Tänak’s patience was tested when asked for a more in-depth answer about the boulder in question and the damage it imparted.
“A rock is a rock,” Tänak said, eyes narrowing slightly above the black mask. “The damage? The wheel came off.”
All was not lost for Adamo’s team. Dani Sordo moved to second, his Sardinian hat-trick ambitions having been given a timely boost. He did not, however, have time to source his Speedos for a third successive dip in the sea. Last year, he defended his lead over Ogier to the finish. He looked solid, dependable and unwilling to relinquish even a second.
But this year, he’d taken on a slightly haunted look. He knew Ogier was coming. And if he didn’t, one suspected he had a voice in his ear reminding him what his right foot was for.
By lunchtime on Saturday, Ogier was ahead by 17.5s. Three stages later and Sordo’s run was done. The i20 Coupe WRC was parked on its side on the second run through Bortigiadas. The data showed the #6 Hyundai’s speed through the offending left-hander hadn’t been dramatically different to the first run through, Sordo’s mistake came in trying to open up the left-hander that followed.
“I took more of a circuit line at the exit,” he said. “I let the car run wider to make the next corner easier. I was, maybe, five centimeters to the right.”
It was enough. The right-rear wheel caught some sort of culvert, it then folded beneath the car and flipped it onto its side.
Ogier’s lead mushroomed to 40.4s over Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans. Evans cut into Ogier’s lead for the next four stages, but he fully understood he wasn’t about to whip half a minute out of his colleague.
First thing Sunday morning, Evans’ priority was to protect his second place from a potentially charging Thierry Neuville, who woke to the final day 22s behind him. Evans bolstered the defences to the tune of a further 11s in 10 miles on SS17.
“You never know,” he said. “It’s a new stage and if you’re willing to push and have a go, you can take a lot of time.”
That, right there, was another demonstration of what Evans is now capable of. Not so long ago, he wouldn’t have been quite so self-assured in such a situation. Not so long ago, Neuville would have taken a shot at Evans. Not anymore. Certainly not when he was the only Hyundai sitting in a significant points-paying position.
Sunday morning was further evidence that Evans very much sits at the WRC’s top table these days.
Hyundai will bounce back (Adamo said so…)
Trying to get a technical analysis out of Andrea Adamo is the closest thing possible to talking to a brick wall in the World Rally Championship. He doesn’t do it. And he won’t do it.
Yes, there are parallels from Portugal to Sardinia – all the issues apparently centered around suspension. The most pertinent questions remains the definition of the issues: did the bits break or were they broken?
Adamo’s not going to answer. Instead, he looks forwards.
“We are working hard to repair the car,” he said. “Tomorrow we are back in business and there are races to go. So honestly I’m lucky enough that after a moment of upset, we are back, and we focus on how to improve and to understand where we may have done a mistake.
“I don’t know if we have, but we are not here saying it’s his fault, my fault, their fault or someone else. There are things that maybe we have to improve, and we will.
“I think you have to be Stevie Wonder to not see that we’ve thrust away two wins that were pretty sure. But it doesn’t mean that we have people there crying or down in mood.”
Talking of down in mood, M-Sport passed a miserable milestone on Friday, when none of the factory Fiestas completed the day.
“I can’t remember the last time that happened,” said managing director Malcolm Wilson. “OK, two of those have been self-inflicted [with Teemu Suninen in the Fiesta WRC and Adrien Fourmaux in the Fiesta Rally2 both going off the road].
“Gus [Greensmith] has had some technical issues through the rally which we’re very confident we’ll get on top of. But this has been a tough, tough event for us.”
Sardinia in the summer is rarely anything other than tough. Billy Ocean had some advice when the going gets tough – and clearly Ogier’s a big Billy Ocean fan. Results like the one the Toyota star crafted out of Sardinia on Sunday are the sort that make championships.