Dani Sordo didn’t look stressed en route to World Rally Championship victory number three of his career, but you can bet he was sweating when the post-event scrutineers decided that they wanted to take a further look at his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC.
Thankfully for the now two-time Sardinia winner, Sordo was allowed to keep his victory ahead of team-mate Thierry Neuville and Toyota’s Sébastien Ogier, whose fight over second was settled by just one second on the powerstage.
Rally Italy always delivers and 2020 was no exception. Here’s what we learned from round six of this year’s now eight-round championship.
Sordo proves he can win a rally from the front
We’ll kick off with the winner, as this was a real statement from the Hyundai pilot and a moment of personal history too as he won the same event twice for the first time.
This Sardinian success was claimed in completely different circumstances to last year’s, where he famously inherited the win on the final stage when Ott Tänak encountered his steering issues. This year, Sordo – for the first time in his 15-season WRC career – controlled the rally from the front.
Third quickest on the opening stage, Sordo was up to second with the scratch time on the next and led the event after SS4; a position he would hold until the end. His first WRC win seven years ago in Germany, when he drove for Citroën, wasn’t quite a smash-and-grab but equally he profited from Volkswagen’s faster Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala making mistakes.
Here, yes he had an advantageous road position but he was still on the pace on Saturday and Sunday when conditions levelled out and he managed the lead throughout. On so many previous occasions Sordo has threatened to do this only for gremlins to strike his Hyundai, but in Sardinia it all came good and it can finally put to bed the incredibly outdated and inaccurate notion that Sordo is only an asphalt expert.
What it furthermore proves is Andrea Adamo’s rotation system for the third Hyundai is working wonders. That’s now three podium finishes for the car in three rallies with Sordo’s win, Craig Breen’s second in Estonia and Sébastien Loeb’s third in Turkey.
Neuville remains the final stage showdown king
For whatever reason, Neuville appears to be a magnet to final stage drama and shootouts. Which is just as well, because he has a habit of coming out on top of them.
Neuville admitted to WRC’s All Live service on Sunday morning that he relishes being the chaser rather than being the one that’s being chased, and his theory certainly stands up on the evidence of Rally Italy.
He began Sunday 1.5s behind Ogier after a small mistake on Saturday’s penultimate stage that dropped him back. Ogier sent a statement to Neuville by going 0.2s on the day’s first stage, only for Neuville to steal 1.6s on the next to sit just 0.1s behind. Ogier then took that same 1.6s away from Neuville on the penultimate run, giving him a 1.7s advantage ahead of the powerstage.
But this was a Neuville stage. He’d already gone quicker on the first pass and who can forget his epic performance on the very same stage two years ago to steal the win from Ogier at the final time of asking?
Living up to the bill, Neuville did Ogier by 2.7s to beat him by just 1s after 148 miles of world rallying. Sensational stuff.
Evans is probably still title favorite, but only just
Elfyn Evans was all the media could talk about heading to Sardinia. With an 18-point championship lead and a diminishing WRC calendar, the title was his to win. Right?
Wrong. For now, anyway. The news that Monza will be added to the calendar took away the mathematical chance that Evans could clinch a maiden WRC title in Sardinia, and thus all the title talk began to fade away. Unfortunately though so did Evans, who was a rather quiet and distant fourth in Italy.
In many respects he was fortunate to escape with just a four-point dent in his series lead. For the fourth rally in a row, Evans wasn’t able to keep tabs on his team-mate Ogier on pure performance, but on the other hand he did absolutely everything he had to do to get his Toyota to the end and bank the points.
His advantage over Ogier with, at most, two rounds to go is 14 points, with Neuville now the next closest challenger and 24 points back. Tänak is a further four points away from Neuville with, Kalle Rovanperä 41 points back thanks to retiring in Italy (more on that later).
Realistically, the other three are still very much in with a shout of toppling Evans with 70 points still up for grabs but it’s Evans that’s in the driver’s seat provided he can get closer to Ogier, Neuville and Tänak on speed.
That shouldn’t be a problem though; firstly because the next two rounds are on Tarmac and Evans has a very strong record on asphalt, but perhaps mostly because he will start first on the road in Ypres and that’s reckoned to be the optimum place to be in a wet November.
It’s far from over, but if it is – and FIA rally director Yves Matton has admitted it could be if COVID-19 forces the cancelation of Ypres and Monza – then Evans will be a hugely popular and highly deserving World Rally Champion. As he rightly pointed out to DirtFish, no matter the complexion of this strange season, everyone has had the same opportunity as each other to score the points.
Rovanperä is human after all
No eight-year-old should be able to control a Toyota Starlet on ice like Kalle Rovanperä did back in 2008, and no teenager should be able to claim podiums like he did in Sweden and dominate powerstages like he did in Sweden and Estonia this year.
It’s a true measure of Rovanperä’s ability that his lacklustre performance on round six came as a genuine surprise. It wasn’t a good showing from the now-20-year-old though. Maybe he’s only at his best when still a teenager? We’ll park that conspiracy theory there…
Rovanperä’s weekend first went awry when he crashed on the pre-event shakedown stage, rolling his Yaris WRC onto its side. When the rally got underway on Friday, he outbraked himself and slided neatly behind a tree – a minor mistake, but it still counts.
But that flirting with the trees got more severe on Saturday when he outright smacked them, kissing one with the rear-left of his Toyota which pitched the car into a 180-degrees spin and sent it violently into another. He wouldn’t restart on Sunday.
This is unlikely to stall Rovanperä’s momentum or spoil what has been a stand-out debut season at the top level, but it’s a reminder that the golden boy is capable of mistakes after all.
This era is perhaps the most competitive era ever
Any debate about eras is always subjective of course, so we aren’t here to try and convince you that the latest era of soon-to-be-called Rally1 cars are definitively the greatest ever in WRC history. But have they produced the most competitive competition? That’s a different story…
This all comes with the caveat that the format, nature and crucially the distance of rallies have moulded over the years meaning the endurance element that was once constantly at the fore is now missing from some, if not all, world rallies in the current age. But it is an incredibly common occurrence nowadays for rallies to still be alive come the final day and even the final stage; with tenths of seconds not tens of seconds dictating the results.
Two of the five closest rally finishes in history have come since 2017 – both won by Neuville (see above point) – and Sardinia was yet another case in point of how close the competition is in the WRC just now.
Ogier and Neuville’s to-and-fro for second place is the perfect example of how the tenths matter, but the overall finishing positions are evidence too. Dani Sordo’s winning margin of 5.1s was small but by no means the smallest, however the gap across the podium was just 6.1s and that’s a new WRC record for the closest finish – eclipsing Rally Argentina 2011 where Loeb, Mikko Hirvonen and Ogier were split by 7.3s.
All three manufacturer teams won stages in Italy too, proving that in modern WRC just about anyone can win on their day.
Rally2 cars are ferociously quick
The M-Sport Return to Rally Stages back in August provided an interesting indication as to the speed of the modern Rally2 machines compared to older World Rally Cars with all variants of M-Sport-built Fords competing in Greystoke. But this was a non-championship event and therefore the abilities of the drivers varied wildly.
Sardinia gave us the perfect indication of how quick the Rally2 cars really are now though, thanks to the welcome return of Martin Prokop in his previous generation Ford Fiesta WRC.
Back when these cars were last used in the WRC in 2016, the R5 cars weren’t getting close. On this very rally in 2016 for example, Prokop finished ninth overall and ahead of the leading R5 car, driven by Jan Kopecký.
Fast forward four years, and Prokop found himself 15th overall, swallowed by seven Rally2 cars. There wasn’t a single stage on the rally where Prokop was quicker than all of the Rally2 runners but of course, it could then be argued that Prokop is now something of a gentleman driver unlike the top Rally2 drivers who are all pitching themselves as stars of tomorrow.
True. But here comes the killer evidence. On the Cala Flumini stage that was the exact same 8.73 miles in length in 2016 – when the older generation cars last ran at the front of the WRC – as it was in 2020, who do you think was quicker? The quickest overall time in 2016 from Thierry Neuville or the fastest Rally2 in 2020 from Mads Østberg?
Neuville posted a 9m08.1s on the first pass and got that down to an 8m53.0s on the second. As for Østberg, he set a time of 9m06.2s first thing on Sunday – 1.9s faster than Neuville in ’16 – and a 8m53.1s on the second pass, just 0.1s shy.
Is this strictly relevant? Probably not, but it’s certainly very interesting. And it’s perhaps a good argument for those who believe the FIA should steer the new regulations towards the Rally2 formula…