Olbia. Sardinia’s east coast. The last time we were here, Sébastien Ogier had only won 10 rounds of the World Rally Championship. The other Sébastien was – for the ninth year in succession – a reigning champ. Avicii was encouraging the world to wake him from his Swedish slumber while Daft Punk got lucky.
In the seven years since the WRC’s decision to ship across the island to Alghero, Sardinia has travelled 129, 422, 707, 200 miles through space (along with the rest of planet earth).
Rally Italy has travelled west, furthered its fortune and is now back where it all began. In Olbia.
It was slightly surreal being back. For unknown reasons I will always associate Olbia with the formative years of Italy’s WRC counter becoming an island dweller: the Solberg, Loeb and Grönholm era. It took me a while to warm to the place – it was hard to leave the history and heritage of Sanremo behind.
But then Chris Atkinson sent his Subaru over a Monte Lerno jumpy called Micky and the deal was done.
Olbia has changed in the last seven years. The lovely old restaurants which lined the roads in and around Piazza Matteotti have moved back a couple blocks, replaced by brasseries and upmarket street food. And the port’s definitely swankier than I remember.
But the welcome for the rally is just as warm as it ever was. Whether the locals consider themselves Sardinians or Italians, they’re united – ad infinitum – by a love of rallying. Don’t forget, this is Costa Smeralda country.
It’s here that Henri Toivonen – on crutches after damaging his ankle at an end-of-leg Circuit of Ireland kart race (seriously, such a thing really happened…) – heroically drove a Porsche 911 to victory in 1984. Fast forward 12 years and the Finn had to be airlifted off the island after attempting a square left “100kph too fast” while leading comfortably. The impact with a dry stone wall snapped the roll cage on his side of the car and left him with two fractured vertebrae in his neck.
In better news for Lancia, that rally was the first public outing for the Delta S4. Markku Alén drove the Italian firm’s ultimate Group B machine as course car.
Sardinia’s rallying pedigree might not be quite as obvious as Sanremo’s, but it’s there. It’s all there.
One aspect of the event’s recent history which has become as Sardinian as sea urchins (best served in spaghetti) and porcheddu (slow-roasted suckling pig) is the post-podium sea celebration.
If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, have a look at Colin Clark’s explanation here. In doing our research for this, I thought it was a tradition started by Sébastien Ogier on the event’s first visit to Alghero in 2014.
And it kind of was. The 2014 event had been a particularly hot and sticky one and when the sun began to bake the champagne-soaked Frenchman, there was only one solution: the harbor.
And so began an annual leap for the winning crew and their team. If we’re honest, in all the years they’ve been jumping, diving and bombing into the water, nobody’s managed to match the height and commitment Ogier achieved in ’14.
But that’s not, actually, how the story started. It was, in fact, Petter Solberg who began the tradition when he jumped in the water at the Porto Cervo finish at the inaugural Sardinian WRC counter 10 years earlier.
A year on and Solberg was keen to see his successor taking a dip too. Sébastien Loeb won the 2005 event and was promptly pushed over the side of the RIB which was ferrying the podium finishers to and from the celebrations.
From memory, Solberg found that one funnier than Loeb…