The World Rally Championship’s run of more traditional gravel events continues this weekend with the 20th edition of Rally Italy Sardinia.
This is typically one of the roughest, toughest, hottest events of the season so endurance and reliability are going to be key just to reach the finish.
But there’s no getting away from road position being absolutely crucial too. Unless the Mediterranean island experiences rain this week – as it did in 2018 – those at the head of the order are going to suffer, sweeping the loose gravel to the benefit of the drivers behind.
It’s not unheard of to win from the front, but it’s incredibly tough. And while the championship standings remain close – albeit not as close as they were before Rally of Portugal – we could be in for plenty of momentum swings over the next few rounds.
Almost half of this week’s Rally1 field have won Rally Italy previously, and two more have scored podium finishes, so there’s plenty of contenders for success. Here is how their form is looking:
#69 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 1st-4th-4th
Best Italy result: 5th (2022)
Kalle Rovanperä has admitted that this is one rally he doesn’t enjoy, and his past results on Sardinia back that up with fifth last year – arguably his most subdued performance of 2022 – his best result to date.
Starting first on the road, as he did last year, is going to make it an uphill challenge but the reigning world champion has shown on other rallies that it’s one he can deal with.
In his favor, Rovanperä cast aside any potential creeping doubts about his 2023 form last time out in Portugal with a stunning performance. Combined with some downtime spent drifting in Japan, he should be re-energized and raring to go for the summer months.
Having suddenly opened a 17-point lead at the top of the standings, his target will surely be a solid points haul to keep that momentum building.
#8 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 4th-2nd-9th
Best Italy result: 1st (2017 & 2022)
Second in the championship and still not fully happy with his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1, Ott Tänak would have taken that as the season approaches its mid-point. But that’s not going to stop him pushing for more.
Rally of Portugal was hard work for M-Sport’s lead driver – and yet he was leading the event before suffering a puncture on the first day. He wasn’t best pleased with his own performance, but he still dragged the car to fourth to keep his points total ticking over.
Starting second on the road isn’t ideal, but Sardinia is an event where Tänak has gone very well in the past. He took his first-ever WRC victory here in 2017 and was cruelly denied by jammed steering on the final stage in 2019.
He led the first half of the event in 2021 before suspension failure, then claimed Hyundai’s first Rally1 victory here last year. If things hold together, Tänak is sure to be in the hunt for a third Sardinian success.
#17 Sébastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 5th-1st-1st
Best Italy result: 1st (2013, 2014, 2015 & 2021)
Starting his fourth event out of six so far this year, and with number five already confirmed for Safari Rally Kenya later in June, Sébastien Ogier isn’t spending much of his part-time campaign on the sidelines so far.
Talk of an unlikely championship challenge was fuelled by victory on two of the season’s first three rallies. And while a puncture in Croatia prevented him challenging for a personal hat-trick, he still topped the standings pre-Portugal.
Skipping the Iberian event leaves the eight-time world champion 29 points down on Kalle Rovanperä but, importantly, gives him a more favorable road position for Sardinia.
Ogier skipped this event last year, but won the previous edition (from first on the road) and has three other Sardinian victories to his name. With Toyota appearing to have improved its rough-rally performance, it would appear unwise to bet against a fifth.
#33 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: DNF-1st-3rd
Best Italy result: 2nd (2021)
After his heavy crash last time out on Rally of Portugal, it’s important for Elfyn Evans to bounce back strongly this week in Sardinia.
He struggled from first on the road in Portugal, and ending his rally in the trees was the last thing Evans and co-driver Scott Martin needed. The only benefit of that non-score is that places him fourth on the road this week.
From there he could be very dangerous, as this is an event he has fond memories of. Winner two years ago, he briefly led last year before picking up damage that thwarted him.
Prior to Portugal, Evans had hit fine form, so if he can put that shunt out of his mind, he should be a strong contender for victory.
#11 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 5th-33rd-2nd
Best Italy result: 1st (2016 & 2018)
Fifth on the road should be the ideal place to start for two-time Sardinia winner Thierry Neuville.
But we said similar ahead of Rally de Portugal and that didn’t go well for Hyundai’s lead driver. In fact, his team-mates had the beating of him there and he looked set to need their assistance to secure a podium before turbo woes intervened.
Will it be different on the Italian island? It’s hard to say. With no local pre-event test, Hyundai (like Toyota, admittedly) may be on the back foot coming here.
Hyundai’s record on these type of events last year was good. Although Neuville himself had a rally to forget on Sardinia, team-mate Tänak won, and Neuville went on to claim the Acropolis Rally. If he’s to keep himself in championship contention, Neuville could really do with repeating that Greek result this week.
#4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 3rd-3rd-DNF
Best Italy result: 3rd (2018)
Strong showings on the past two gravel events mean that Esapekka Lappi is on a high as he heads to Sardinia.
From sixth on the road, he will feel he can challenge for victory in his Hyundai i20 N. Whether he will end up having to play the role of dutiful team-mate, time will tell.
Lappi led Rally Italy overnight after the first day last year, only to crash out on Saturday morning’s opener. He mustn’t make a habit of such mistakes if he is to add to his sole WRC event victory to date.
Lappi missed the 2021 event, and suffered engine failure the year before that, but his first spell with Toyota yielded strong results in 2018 and ’19 so he could, once again, be considered a dark horse for this event.
#6 Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 2nd-5th-7th
Best Italy result: 1st (2019 & 2020)
A fantastic run to second in Portugal was both emotional and super-impressive from Dani Sordo.
Hyundai’s veteran part-timer has proved time and again that he has the ideal temperament to score strong results on the slower, rougher gravel events.
And they don’t come much rougher than Rally Italy Sardinia, where Sordo took back-to-back victories in 2019-20.
Expect the usual approach of maximizing his advantageous road position to run well up the leaderboard on the first day, then driving sensibly to score a strong result.
#18 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 33rd-6th-23rd
Best Italy result: 4th (2021)
Portugal was another event where Takamoto Katsuta left with very little to show for his efforts. But, other than a spin after restarting on the second day, that was largely due to the alternator problem he suffered on Friday.
Consigned to opening the road after he restarted, Katsuta brought the car home to score manufacturers’ points and set some good stage times, winning Sunday’s opener and scoring points for fourth on the powerstage.
But the fact remains, he has yet to finish better than sixth this year and could really do with a good clean run this week, without the pressure of scoring manufacturers’ points for Toyota.
Katsuta hasn’t had a great time on previous visits to Sardinia, finishing only three of his previous six starts. But sensible runs to sixth and fourth over the past two years are the kind of thing he’ll be aiming to repeat.
#7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Nicolas Gilsoul (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 32nd-7th-27th
Best Italy result: 4th (2022)
Similar could be said for Pierre-Louis Loubet as Katsuta although, in Loubet’s case, it was his own error (albeit small) that brought about his downfall in Portugal.
Loubet reckons he has the pace to challenge towards the front of the WRC field and he’s certainly made progress over the past couple of years.
In fact, it’s the hot gravel events where he has performed best, including that fastest stage-time on Portugal’s opening test and his career-best fourth position on Rally Italy last year.
It’s an event Loubet has plenty of experience of and, with an advantageous road position on Friday, he will be looking to push towards the podium positions. Keep it clean and tidy, and he could well impress.