Sardinia was the WRC at its very best

Weather, crashes, constant lead change. It's fair to say Rally Italy Sardinia had a bit of everything this year


In the end, Elfyn Evans gave up. What was the point? There was no point. Best be brave. And get wet. The Welshman’s battle with a disposable raincoat and plastic overshoes was as admirable as it was futile.

This rain was stopping for nobody. Emerging from his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1, the Croatia Rally winner dived beneath an umbrella and watched a mid-street Olbia stream flow over the top of his OMP race boots. The storm which hit the service park was the final act in a weekend which, at times, beggared belief.

The numbers offer some indication of the outlandish storyline Rally Italy Sardinia followed: seven stage winners and eight changes of lead.

A change of name at the top of the timesheets on every other stage can’t fail but make for a scintillating event. Last week was the World Rally Championship at its very best. In terms of the 2023 story Sardinia was a thriller; a twisting, page-turner of a chapter.

From the Thursday night moment, the crews were encouraged to drive into a carpark and scrub their tires in a series of smokin’ drifts and donuts, this event simply didn’t stop delivering.

The action continued all the way to Sunday afternoon and a powerstage, where longtime WRC2 leader Adrien Fourmaux slipped off the road, his Ford Fiesta Rally2 hauled to safety by a pickup truck which just about made it up the hill.

For the vast majority of the event, the theme was centered on the effervescent genius of Sébastien Ogier, the burgeoning brilliance of Esapekka Lappi and watersplashes.

Ogier and Lappi played out a classic day-one ding-dong to head into the weekend with the Finn out front by the smallest margin possible.


While his team-mate Thierry Neuville talked about an undriveable Hyundai (mainly on the second run at the 30-mile Monte Lerno test where he ran hard Pirellis up front), Lappi had his car dialled in.

“I made it in Finland last week,” he smiled. He wasn’t joking.

Lappi made significant changes to the damper set-up for the i20 N Rally1 at Hyundai’s private test site in central Finland. They worked brilliantly.

And never more so than in Friday’s re-run Tantariles stage. Post-recce, the crews identified the six-miler, back on the schedule for the first time since 2004, as one of the keys to the event. That was enough to send Team DirtFish in for its own recce. The road was comfortably one of the most challenging we’d seen in years. It had everything. But most of all it had some serious micro-topography. There were jumps in the high-speed and no end of bumps in the braking.

First time through, Lappi was properly all-angles. Second time, he sent it, went fastest and moved up to second. One stage later and Ogier was insight. One more and he was P1. By a tenth.

A frustrated Ogier rued a duff tire choice and the wrong set-up. He would be back in the morning, with just one thing on his mind. The lead. He didn’t waste much time. Any, in fact.

He passed Lappi in the opener.

Only to see the Hyundai reverse those positions in the next one. And EP had done well, tripling his overnight advantage to a comfortable three tenths of a second.

In all honesty, that was as close as he got to the win.

To beat Neuville this year, Lappi needs to have a rival from another team between the two Hyundais. Ogier second was perfect. His boss Cyril Abiteboul couldn’t ask him to slow down for the team leader if it was going to simultaneously promote a rival.

A frustrated Lappi watched as Ogier moved by him on the road from Erula – Tula (which, interestingly, actually ran from Tula to Erula this time). The gap grew even wider, with Ogier extending his lead to 18.2s in Tempio Pausania.

“I have nothing left in the tires,” said Lappi. “I can’t keep the car in a straight line.”

Tempio’s also the place where he crashed out of the lead last year. There was always the afternoon. But crucially, he needed Ogier to remain in the fight.

We were rubbing our hands. Lappi had to take it to his former team-mate and crack him on pace.

Then Ogier’s afternoon happened and Lappi resigned himself to his second-placed fate.

Ogier’s afternoon began with re-arranging the front end of his Yaris in the same way team-mates Takamoto Katsuta and Elfyn Evans had already done in watersplashes which were rising by the hour as torrential afternoon rain battered the island.

The #17 car stalled at the exit of another monster puddle, but crucially fired quickly. It developed the sort of thirst which accompanies a damaged radiator, but with every road resembling a river, water wasn’t hard to come by to sate the thing.

Mid-way through Saturday’s re-run stages, the gap was down to 4.3 and the Lappi plan was coming together. Sort of. A resurgent Neuville, car hooked up on Lappi’s dampers, forced his way back into the fight. Then offered a brutally honest appraisal of the morning.

“Séb punched back on one of the stages,” said the Belgian, before adding with a grin: “and we got properly hit in the face.”

With an eye to the sky, Neuville admitted more rain was a good option.

“When the conditions are changing,” he said, “it could help us. The bigger gaps usually come when the weather is like this. This morning, it’s been a bit like a yo-yo, going this way and that.”

For Ogier, the string on his yo-yo was about to be cut.

Let’s hand over to the Frenchman to tell his own story of a nightmare afternoon.

“An eventful afternoon,” he told DirtFish. “It all started stage one [of the afternoon] with the water splashes. It damaged the front of the car and the radiator. Then it was a big fight the whole afternoon trying to fix it and so we worked all the time flat out on every road section.

“Unfortunately we realized one minute before checking in that we had a slow puncture on the rear. We had to change the tire again and put a hard [tire on] unfortunately.

“But we managed to change it in less than a minute, we checked in like two seconds before being late – but that all happened in the mud.

“Then I jumped in the car, start the stage, and so stupidly I don’t know… I brake and my foot slipped from the pedal. My foot [was] full of mud, I slipped from the pedal and then the time that I jumped on the brake again I don’t know… it was too late, I locked the tire, stalled the engine and just… nothing.

“We were stopped just one meter too late, otherwise we could have gone back. But yeah, it was not my day.”

Sitting waiting at the start of the stage, Lappi knew his job was done, his realistic race run. He throttled back and took his second place.

Neuville won, but was quick to point to the potential for more pace.


“We have,” he said. “made some steps, definitely. But we still need to improve. In some of the conditions sometimes we can go fast, but just the feeling is not good, and when the feeling is not good we tend to make mistakes.

“So we still need to work on that. It went better for me throughout the weekend, but I still feel like it’s not 100%.”

The message that there’s more to come from the Hyundai must be a concern for Toyota and for M-Sport Ford – especially when there’s water around.

Both teams suffered from forced ingestion of water, with both factory Pumas were struck by gremlins which could be traced to the sodden conditions.

What does all of that mean? Does it mean Neuville lucked into his first win of the season?

No. And yes. And no.


Would he have caught and passed Lappi on pure pace? For me, no. EP was on one last weekend. He’s found the i20’s sweetspot and he’s exploiting the feeling. By Neuville’s own admission, Lappi feels more comfortable in the car than him – again, refreshing honesty from a man who has almost 10 times more seat time in one of the Korean machines.

So should Lappi have won?

Once again, I think he should have been given the opportunity. Toyota, to its absolute credit, has always made a feature out of its even and fair-handed approach to intra-team rivalry. From a purely sporting perspective, I feel Hyundai’s gone too early in loading the Belgian basket with eggs.

The way the Finn’s flying, keeping one or two of them back might not have been a bad thing.

This is business. Abiteboul’s business. And only the season’s end will tell us if that investment, that strategy has paid off.

And maybe it will have stopped raining by then…