Thierry Neuville has claimed Hyundai’s first World Rally Championship victory of the season as he led home team-mate Esapekka Lappi on a dramatic Rally Italy Sardinia.
World Rally champion Kalle Rovanperä completed the podium to extend his championship lead, as Neuville moved up to second ahead of Ott Tänak.
Neuville is 25 points behind Rovanperä, with Tänak and Elfyn Evans another eight and 10 points shy of Neuville respectively.
Hyundai’s 1-2 finish also allowed it to slim Toyota’s advantage in the manufacturers’ championship too.
Neuville wasn’t the quickest i20 N Rally1 driver from the outset though. Instead that was Lappi, who led the rally after Thursday evening’s superspecial and then traded it with Toyota’s Sébastien Ogier throughout the course of Friday.
In an epic battle, Ogier took the lead by 0.4 seconds only for Lappi to overturn that and lead by the same margin after the very next stage, before Ogier made a break for it on the daunting 30-mile Monte Lerno stage.
However, over the course of the afternoon Lappi hit back and took a narrow lead into the rally’s second full day.
Saturday would prove decisive, as the expected rain really shook up the order. Takamoto Katsuta and Tänak both retired due to failures related to water crossings, while Evans ran into problems in both the morning and the afternoon but avoided retirement.
Rally leader Ogier wasn’t immune either. Although he had managed to pull ahead of Lappi over the course of the morning, he had a torrid afternoon where first he briefly lost power through the same water crossing that had caught out Katsuta in the morning, then he noticed a soft tire just before the start of the penultimate stage of the day.
That caused him to hurry into the car just to make it onto the stage on-time, but kickstarted a chain of events that led to Ogier slipping off the road as his muddy foot slipped on the brake pedal.
Passing the stricken Ogier, Lappi immediately backed off in the treacherous conditions but further ahead on the stage, Neuville had the hammer down.
Beating Lappi by close to half a minute on the stage, Neuville stormed into a 23.8s advantage and with Hyundai’s strategy clear for the season, there was no challenge from Lappi as Neuville went on to record a 33.0s victory.
“It’s the first victory for the team this year, a 1-2, a first time for our team principal,” Neuville said. “We all have Craig in our memories – we wanted that victory in Croatia but we got it now.”
Lappi couldn’t really hide his disappointment about needing to relent to his team-mate, but did break a personal WRC record though, as his second place was his third consecutive WRC podium in a row.
“You need to accept these things, for sure it’s frustrating but that’s how it is,” said Lappi.
After the dominant victory in Portugal three weeks ago, Rovanperä had an anonymous weekend in Sardinia – an event he has openly admitted he doesn’t particularly enjoy.
But third place, considering issues for his title rivals and the fact he was opening the road on Friday, was far more than he was expecting from round six. And Rovanperä duly dominated the powerstage to take a very fine reward from his trip to Italy.
“Quite good points, I was not expecting so much from the weekend,” said the world champion. “We were really patient and we didn’t make any mistakes or break the car.”
Evans returned to the points after his big crash in Portugal with a reserved drive to fourth – focusing simply on survival after his various water-induced engine problems on Saturday.
But he arrived at the end of the powerstage with the rear wing hanging off his Toyota after a wild moment.
Dani Sordo had been set to finish fifth, recovering up the leaderboard after a roll on Friday. But the Hyundai driver retired two stages from home with an exhaust issue.
That promoted the surprise WRC2 winner, Andreas Mikkelsen, into the overall top five as Adrien Fourmaux went off on the powerstage.
Oliver Solberg had led the Rally2 contest early on but when his front-left suspension collapsed on Friday morning he was ejected from the battle – although did very well to keep his car running in the rally at all.
Solberg’s loss should have been Fourmaux’s gain as he built on impressive recent form to lead by over half a minute heading onto the powerstage, looking set for his first ever WRC2 win.
But in incredibly wet and difficult conditions, Fourmaux slid his Ford Fiesta Rally2 marginally off the road, hit some rocks and was stuck fast – forced into retirement with damaged suspension.
The late drama promoted a shocked Mikkelsen onto the top step of the podium – his first WRC2 victory since Rally Estonia last July.
“Wow, tricky conditions, really difficult,” said Mikkelsen when he learned Fourmaux had gone off.
“The rain is coming all the time so whoever gets the least rain maybe win the stage. Really sad way for it to end, Adrien did an amazing job all weekend and there’s a whole lot for the M-Sport team to be really happy with.””
Hyundai’s Teemu Suninen ended up second while Kajetan Kajetanowicz clung on to what became the final step on the podium ahead of Yohan Rossel by just 7.4s.
Miko Marczyk and Erik Cais were fifth and sixth in WRC2 and completed an overall top 10 which, for the fourth time this season, didn’t feature Pierre-Louis Loubet.
The M-Sport driver had more reserved ambitions for Sardinia after targeting a maiden podium last time out in Portugal, but Loubet was on target for that after Friday morning as he lay third.
But his Friday afternoon was a disaster. First his Ford Puma Rally1 wouldn’t engage into gear when sat in the time control for SS5. Although Loubet did eventually get it going for what proved to be a canceled stage, he was handed a three-minute time penalty for the disruption.
Things then got worse though on the day’s final stage when damage to the car put Loubet off the road, and to add insult to injury he was then retired from the rest of the event.