Twenty-two miles. That’s how far Dani Sordo had driven a Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC in competitive World Rally Championship action prior to last week’s Rally Italy.
Just 22 Méxican miles in five stages – three of which were spectator-pleasing runs around the streets. So you can understand the skepticism when he landed back into Alghero and started talking about back-to-back Sardinian wins.
Yes, he’d be 10th on roads that would clean, but they wouldn’t clean to anything like the same extent they would have done if the event had run in its pre-coronavirus planned June date. And, what’s more, torrential rain from the tail end of Storm Alex had watered the roads and left certain sections of the Tempio Pausania opener still muddy.
But it was the 22 miles thing (or 35 kilometers if you prefer) that would, for me, really handicap Sordo. Yes, he’d had time in the car, driving a Rally1 to victory at Rally di Roma and a couple of Rally2 runs on other national events, but the others had been ripping up Estonia and dodging the rocks in Turkey.
Just three weeks on from Marmaris, Sordo’s rivals were match fit and good to go. But none of them had the get-up-and-go demonstrated by the Spaniard.
Watching from afar before the first stage, this was a more focused Sordo. Ordinarily, he’s out of the car, chatting, catching up with folk and generally making people smile. Somehow, this time it was different. He’d found a great feeling from the car from his pre-event set-up and Sordo sniffed another result.
But a win?
A drive through the opening stage earlier in the week further convinced me this wouldn’t inspire confidence for Sordo.
There’s not much in this world that Dani doesn’t get on with, but inconsistent grip and surface changes are two of his pet hates. And the new-for-2020 Tempio Pausania was full of both. More than that, it was technical, twisty, narrow and generally considered one of the most testing openers in years.
Even worse, it wasn’t going to clean. Instead, by car 10, it would be rutted and more than likely a bit more muddy.
Sordo came out third. But OK.
“Not so bad start, eh?” he reasoned. Nobody was disagreeing.
The Erula-Tula test which followed was much more up his street. Much more… Portuguese-like.
He was quickest both times and coming out of the repeat of SS2, he had his nose in front by 7.5 seconds after creaming the best of the rest by 9.4s in 13 and a half miles. That was impressive. But was it the start of something.
“I didn’t like the first one, but the second stage did was all good,” he told DirtFish. “From the beginning of the stage, it reminded me of Portugal. It was the same sort of surface, so already in the first line into the first corner, I really liked it and after that I start to push and drive hard in the line with the car in a good position.
“It was good for the confidence and I was able to make the time without pushing with the car like this…”
He stopped talking long enough to demonstrate armfuls of oversteer.
This was a Sordo we hadn’t really seen much of before. And it continued. He searched for a way to talk about the car in a way I hadn’t seen him talk about a car. Not one of the many Citroëns he drove, or even the Mini he really enjoyed making work with the Prodrive squad with which he really bonded.
“The team has worked so hard on this car through the holiday,” he said, likely being the first person to describe the pandemic-enforced lockdown in such a way.
The car just fed his feeling. It did precisely what he wanted. He could do no wrong with it.
Which made it all the more surprising to see his more celebrated team-mates floundering. Defending world champion Ott Tänak was sidelined with a suspension issue immediately, and Thierry Neuville was struggling like mad to keep the car settled in the ruts. He’d dropped half a minute in the first morning.
What was going on? How could the man who’d already won twice here be so far out to sea with the set-up. Had the changes made to the i20 to speed it up on fast gravel compromised it on the slower stuff?
“That’s a simplistic answer,” was team principal Andrea Adamo’s straight answer. “If I would say that, then I would also be stupid in respect of the job done by my engineers. This is not a Formula 1 car and we are not running in Monte Carlo with the Monza set-up. We are just modifying many things. And, don’t forget, for certain stages it’s easier to set the car up for Estonia than it is for Sardinia.
“There have been many differences in the stages this morning. The first stage was technical, twisty and the second one was faster and both with different surfaces. The best compromise has not been found.
“And let me say one more thing, if I may be permitted. If I check the stage times it’s not really that [Neuville’s car] doesn’t work; if I’m not wrong in the last stage it was one-two [for Hyundais] and if it didn’t work, it would not have been like this. Of course, I say it like this, sometimes Thierry is more Italian than me. Emotions can take control of him. We have to modify the set-up for his needs, I’m not worried about this.
“We modified a lot of the car this summer and I feel we still have a lot of things to unlock that are new and we have to understand exactly what we have to put to make it work perfectly for everybody.”
But still, here’s the thing, in search of the best compromise, Neuville reached out to Sordo and the dampers he was using to help him find the feeling himself. He’d tried it the Sordo way in shakedown, but it didn’t work. In service after SS4, he was willing to give it another shot.
“There were some new settings after the test,” said the Belgian. “I tried it for one run after shakedown, but it wasn’t right. Dani has driven it this morning, so I used part of his settings, changed the gearbox and it worked much better in the afternoon.”
Sordo was looking – and driving – like a team leader.
He could win this. He could win this.
“Already, this year is even better than last year,” he said on Friday night. “Last year [on this event] it was not this nice a start. Today we had some difficult stages, but tomorrow’s a different rally. We can see we are there in the pace. That last stage was too good to imagine, we try to keep pushing and we try to fight.”
But Saturday was the big day. The day when all Sordo’s rivals were in similar conditions. No swept roads, all in the same boat.
M-Sport Ford driver Teemu Suninen was running second after day one and, while this story’s mainly about a Spaniard in a Korean car, we have to mention the British-built Fords. After a fairly torrid time in the last couple of rallies, M-Sport was back on Friday in Sardinia. One-two on SS1, Esapekka Lappi’s engine exploded on the second stage, but his fellow Finn Suninen charged on and kept Sordo honest, just 17s back on Friday night.
That was as good as it would get, he struggled with a handbrake issue and slipped back down the order. Second in Sardinia last season, he’d shown what he could do once more.
And Saturday was going to be the day Sordo was shown the way home. He binned that script and extended his lead.
Yes, Sébastien Ogier was faster than him – as was Neuville – across Saturday, but Sordo was fired-up. And fired-up in no small part by the building Saturday soap opera which followed Toyota driver Ogier’s accusation of the WRC being good for guest drivers.
“The WRC is just a very guest-friendly championship,” said the six-time champ. “Very, very guest-friendly, you hand the victory to the guest on the plate.”
Sordo smiled. And came right back.
“I will not be on the same level as Ogier so I don’t have nothing to say,” said the Spaniard. “The rules are like this. If you don’t like rally, don’t come to drive. Maybe he should stay home for half of the year and do half a program like me. You can stay at home, watch the TV and then come to drive. It’s good!”
Poking at Sordo is a little bit like pulling the tail on a Golden Retriever: you just can’t do it. You just don’t do it. Why would you want to? (For the record, no dog’s tail is for pulling.)
By the end of the day, Ogier realized he’d got it wrong and, midway through the Spaniard’s Saturday night chat with DirtFish, the two had a hug, swapped a couple of one-liners and showed they were mates really.
With 27s in hand and just 25 miles in four stages to run, surely Sordo had this one in hand. He accepted things were looking good, but he pointed at the titanic scrap for second place and the way the sparring Ogier and Neuville would force each other to be faster. He would have to be careful.
Dropping 12.1s in Sunday morning’s opener wasn’t exactly careful.
“In the first corner, I went a little bit wide and I hit a little bit the rear of the car,” he said. “After that, because the stage was quite good grip, I was pushing and I was feeling like I was doing well, with the speed and all. But at the front people were really, really pushing really hard.”
That time loss took him by surprise. When he dropped another six on the re-run of Cala Flumini, he was less surprised when the telephone flashed: A. Adamo.
“What did I tell him?” said Adamo, “I told him: “F*****g hell! Now I start to get fed up. I tell him he is Dani Sordo, now drive like Dani Sordo.”
He did. The Friday/Saturday version.
And he won.
With another day to reflect on his words, Ogier had more to say about the all-too self-depricating Sordo.
“I would like to say and give some credit to Dani, because he is such a nice and honest guy,” said Ogier. “You almost feel bad that he had to use this advantage being first [on the road], but the truth is he shouldn’t mention it too much and just remember that he has been strong this weekend and that you used the rules as it is. Everybody had the chance to do it in the back and he was the only one, so well done, Dani. Enjoy your victory and don’t try to minimize your victory.”
Ogier himself suffered another defeat to Neuville across the Sassari-Argentiera stage, but the upside for Ogier was that he nibbled four points from team-mate Elfyn Evans’ championship lead (the Welsh-flagged Yaris WRC was fourth).
This time Ogier lost the powerstage to Neuville by a second, but he at least kept the margin tight enough to the second-placed Hyundai to ensure there would be no post-event shenanigans to promote Thierry at the expense of Dani’s third career WRC win.
That’s not to say there weren’t some post-event shenanigans, there were. Nobody likes stewards’ bulletins on a Sunday night. But there it was, all four Hyundai i20 Coupe WRCs were retained for a longer look from the scrutineers.
And Sordo’s was found not to conform.
The rear subframe was 24.5g lighter than the regulations permit. That’s the weight of a very decent-sized bag of chips. Hyundai was fined €30,000, two-thirds of which were suspended for 12 months.
Hyundai’s one-two stood. Adamo blamed a quality control issue and apologized to the stewards.
The rest of the service park fumed. Naturally, none of the other teams wanted to go on the record, but they questioned how Adamo could claim no sporting advantage. I tend to agree.
The car was lighter than it should be and, even with my limited knowledge of power-to-weight ratios – and even if it’s just a large bag of chips – it would have been quicker. That’s simple physics.
The car broke the rules and, my personal view, is that Hyundai got away with one there – not least because the part was actually 200g under its homologated weight.
That said, it would have been a miserable way for Sordo to lose a win he richly deserved. Like Ogier said, don’t minimize the win.
Last year Dani Sordo won Rally Italy because Ott Tänak didn’t. This time Dani Sordo won Rally Italy because Dani Sordo did. And everybody else didn’t.