Think back to morning of June 14, two years ago. It was a Friday. The World Rally Championship was up early for the first of 19 Sardinian stages. In that moment, I have one question for you: what price was a Dani Sordo hat-trick on gravel rallies?
Your reply, no doubt, would have been short and fairly direct.
What price now?
The Spaniard arrives in Olbia on the back of a stellar second place in Portugal just 10 days ago. Not to mention back-to-back Rally Italy wins. Seventh on the road this week, the 38-year-old has moved from long-shot to almost odds-on favorite.
How is that? After he took 107 starts to score WRC win number one in Germany eight years ago, how come he’s such a potent force on the loose – always seen as his weaker surface – these days.
It would be naïve to think the likeable Cantabrian was doing this all by himself. Hyundai Motorsport’s strategy of rotating Sordo and Craig Breen in the third car is working a treat for the team. And Sordo.
Whether it’s working for Breen is debatable. In fact, it’s not really debatable. Quite simply, it’s not. For Dani, this is almost the perfect set-up. He’s done his bit on the WRC’s full-time travel plan and is now looking to drive the world’s fastest rally cars on the events he loves.
Breen, on the other hand, needs to be in a car at the top flight on every round. Yes, he’s getting seat time – and plenty of it – in a Hyundai i20 R5, but six months passed between him finishing second in Estonia and then stepping back into the i20 Coupe WRC in Rovaniemi. And it had been close on three years since he drove an asphalt-spec World Rally Car on a full asphalt round of the championship when he started Croatia.
But what can Breen do? With factory seats in such huge demand, he has to sit tight and do as he’s told. Does Andrea Adamo care? Probably not. Should he care? Probably not. His focus is on delivering a third successive manufacturers’ title to Seoul.
I get the tactical side of the operation, it’s partly what’s played Sordo into the position of chasing a Sardinian hat-trick, but I’ve always questioned its impact on drivers still on the up and up in the championship.
We’ve seen it time and again and it’s never really worked for any of the drivers. Just ask Alex Bengue or Jani Paasonen what they thought of Škoda’s rotation policy in 2005 or Dani Sola and Kristian Sohlberg on Mitsubishi’s similar plan around the same time.
Each of those drivers got their respective Fabia WRC or Lancer WRC04 and tried to win the rally on practically every corner.
It rarely went well and often ended with bent metal and discarded drivers.
Arguably, Hyundai Motorsport is in a different position; Adamo’s not trying to develop (or seat race) Sordo and Breen. He’s chasing points and prizes.
I’ve kind of wandered off a little bit here. Apologies for that. The thrust of this story was Sordo and his speed on gravel.
Running a swept road with more grip is undoubtedly worth a chunk of time every mile, but to brush Sordo’s success aside and label it simply as ‘a running order thing’ would be to do him a massive disservice. I’ve watched him since he came into the world championship in 2003 and I’ve never seen him drive better than he is right now.
He’s comfortable with the car, the team and his position. He knows he won’t be world champion, but he has the confidence to win rallies and he’s happy to play the team game. All of that has fed the fire inside of Sordo.
For years, while he was at Citroën with Sébastien Loeb, winning was out of the question. He didn’t have his team-mate’s pace. And when he did, he was only ever warming the podium’s top step for Loeb.
Put simply, Sordo lacked the winning mentality earlier in his career.
He doesn’t anymore and that’s how he fended off Sébastien Ogier through the final day in Sardinia last October. Granted, he missed an opportunity in Portugal a fortnight ago and simply failed to engage in a Sunday scrap with Elfyn Evans. His nemesis… an inconsistent car caught up with him and spooked him into remembering to play the team game and bring Mr Adamo 18 points.
I hope he puts all of that out of his mind this week. I hope he goes like stink and slams another Sardinian win.
Do that and I promise to push Colin Clark into the sea with him on Sunday afternoon.
Now surely that’s a bet worth winning?