Ott Tänak has secured his first World Rally Championship win of the Rally1 era for both himself and Hyundai, winning Rally Italy by over a minute as the challenge from Toyota faltered early.
Sardinia looked set to host a three-way battle for the win early on between the Yarises of Elfyn Evans and Esapekka Lappi along with Tänak. But as the championship-leading team’s drivers hit trouble, Tänak came to the fore and pulled away from the field behind him.
After Evans retired early on Friday morning Tänak looked set to battle Lappi for the win, the pair trading seconds for most of the first full day of action.
Tänak’s hopes of a win were suddenly at risk on Friday’s last stage that ran – the final loop was canceled – when a transmission issue had left him with only three-wheel drive, costing him the lead to Lappi. But with those final two tests canceled, the problem was fixed before he had to take on another stage, a crucial reprieve from Hyundai’s reliability woes.
On Saturday’s first stage Lappi crashed out, a compression in the road throwing him off-line and into a bank that sent him pinging into a rock that ripped his left-rear wheel off.
From there Tänak racked up stage win after stage win, pulling away from the field to take a first win since Arctic Rally Finland early last year.
“It’s been very challenging, especially the beginning of this generation, so definitely very happy,” said Tänak. “Especially for the mechanics, they put incredible effort all the end of last year and beginning of this year. Also this rally, it was never easy. They did a good job to keep the car going.”
Second place had been hotly contested on the Saturday of Rally Italy between M-Sport’s Craig Breen and Dani Sordo, though by Sunday the battle had fizzled out with Sordo opting to safely bank third place.
An untidy Friday by Breen involved an overshoot at a chicane and a half-spin at a hairpin, costing him a few seconds. But otherwise he was best-of-the-rest behind the lead contenders all weekend, fending off the challenge from Sordo successfully and securing second by half a minute.
“I’m thrilled, honestly,” said Breen. “It’s been a really good weekend. Myself and Paul are starting to find out feet. The car is definitely getting better and better; I’m feeling more confident.”
Sordo had lost time on Saturday afternoon when he tore the front splitter off his Hyundai and stalled after a watersplash, costing him valuable seconds that ultimately made it difficult to close the gap later in the rally.
Despite taking a second podium finish in a row, Sordo remained unsatisfied with his own performance.
“I’m not really happy,” said Sordo. “I would like to fight a bit more with Craig but he had amazing speed, and after also with some problems and dust in the first day, we lost some time. But I didn’t want to make any mistakes.
“We need to remember I’m here to bring the points,” he added.
Pierre-Louis Loubet banked a career-best fourth place finish in the second Ford Puma, carefully picking his way through Sunday’s stages without any drama.
He’d been involved in the early stages of Saturday’s three-way fight for second place between himself, Breen and Sordo, though ultimately dropped off the back of the chase at the end of the penultimate day and chose to focus on securing fourth place instead.
There was no repeat of the miraculous first on the road to first at the finish performance from Rally Portugal for Kalle Rovanperä in Italy, coming home a distant fifth.
He dropped over a minute on the opening day, mostly from sweeping loose gravel aside. But running wide on Friday morning and ripping the rear wing off his Toyota held him back further, with the car becoming difficult to drive with the disruption to aero.
He continued to fall further back from the leaders on Saturday, though inherited a place from Adrien Fourmaux after the M-Sport driver crashed out and retired.
Though he was unhappy with how his car had handled the narrow, twisty and rutted sections in Sardinia, Rovanperä had at least ticked off one key objective in Italy.
“For sure the most important thing is that we get more points than Thierry,” said Rovanperä.
He was disappointed with his run on the powerstage despite going second-fastest and picking up four points on the powerstage, however.
“This one was a tricky one,” he said of Sassari. “I couldn’t do more with the car. I was pushing a lot but I was fighting so much with the car. Even the steering was really rough on the ruts, kicking me out of the ruts many times when the steering goes hard.”
Instead the maximum powerstage points went to Neuville, whose five bonus points helped him stay ahead of team-mate Tänak in the title race and hold onto second.
“What might have been; it’s [been this] for the last five races already,” concluded Neuville. “It’s really disappointing but again, we don’t give up, we fight hard.”
Takamoto Katsuta wrapped up sixth place, his sixth WRC points finish in a row. He had struggled on Friday as third car on the road, a consequence of heading to Italy with being so high up the drivers’ championship standings pre-Sardinia.
But it was Saturday that really set him back, when he hit the edge of an asphalt hairpin nose-first and damaged the cooling on his Toyota.
Subsequent radiator damage set him back a little but it was the lack of protection of the car’s understand that really held him back, forcing him to go slow and be ultra-careful to avoid another hit.
It was a smart play considering team-mate Evans had retired early on Friday morning after an underside impact, some bedrock sticking out of the road breaking through the sump guard on his GR Yaris and sending water temperatures through the roof.
That forced Evans to retire, only to then retire again the next day when the left-rear suspension failed. His total points haul from Italy was only three, a consolation for going third-fastest on the powerstage.
Gus Greensmith picked up seventh in another rally where hopes of a strong result were over early. An overshoot on Friday morning cost almost two minutes, as his Ford Puma kept stalling when he tried to get back on the road. Another overshoot on the following test followed, putting him well down the order.
While he recovered to surpass the full WRC2 field he got no further, spending much of the final two days experimenting with various settings on his Puma in preparation for later rounds of the season.
Nikolay Gryazin wrapped up his first WRC2 victory of the 2022 season, breaking Andreas Mikkelsen and Yohan Rossel’s stranglehold on the category to date.
Mikkelsen and Rossel had been the frontrunners early on and battled for the lead. But both feel by the wayside, firstly with Rossel crashing out on Friday when running second and then Mikkelsen retiring on Saturday when his engine failed for the second time in as many rallies.
That opened a clear path for Mikkelsen’s Toksport Škoda team-mate to take a comfortable win, though it was a tough battle behind for the final podium spot.
Jan Solans was able to covert the second place he inherited from the frontrunners’ trouble but Chris Ingram wasn’t able to hold off a late charge from last year’s WRC2 class winner in Italy, Jari Huttunen.
Huttunen took third place away from Ingram early on Sunday morning, prompting a dismissive response from Ingram.
“I only care about WRC2 Junior this year,” said Ingram on the first pass of Sassari. “My aim is to win that and we’ve had a tough rally, we need to get some good points. I don’t care about Huttunen. It’s not for this year.”
Ingram then went and won the next stage, setting up a final stage showdown with only 2.1s to find to catch Huttunen.
But Huttunen wasn’t for catching, blitzing Ingram by 3.6s on the powerstage to take the final podium spot behind Solans.
While he was content with a podium, he was left to rue the lost opportunity for a first WRC2 win of the year earlier in the rally.
“The result was good but I don’t know if it’s bad luck or what it is, but we had two punctures and lost so much time,” Huttunen surmised.
Such has been Rossel and Mikkelsen’s dominance of the category so far this year, they remain first and second in the points despite their respective disasters in Italy.
- Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +5m01.00s
- Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +2.3s
- Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +3.0s
- Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota) +3.1s
- Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +9.0s
- Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +13.1s
- Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +13.2s
- Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford) +18.2s
- Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera (Hyundai) +19.9s
- Pierre-Louis Loubet/Vincent Landais (M-Sport Ford) +20.2s
Leading positions after SS21
- Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) 3h12m02.3s
- Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford) +1m03.2s
- Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera (Hyundai) +1m33.00s
- Pierre-Louis Loubet/Vincent Landais (M-Sport Ford) +2m09.4s
- Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +3m02.8s
- Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +4m02.6s
- Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +5m23.6s
- Nikolay Gryazin/ Konstantin Aleksandrov (Škoda) +7m37.7s
- Jan Solans /Rodrigo Sanjuan (Citroën) +8m05.7s
- Jari Huttunen/ Mikko Lukka (M-Sport Ford) +8m10.8s