Somehow, the 2023 World Rally Championship season is nearing its halfway point.
Round six of 13 is now in the books, and boy did Rally Italy Sardinia deliver in terms of drama.
From big attrition, important championship drives and evolving team politics, Sardinia gave us a bit of just about everything.
Here’s what we learned from the event:
Neuville looks like Rovanperä’s biggest threat
After two disappointing results in Croatia and Portugal, Thierry Neuville needed a big result in Sardinia to rescue his world title aspirations.
A big result is exactly what he delivered.
Although not in the very thick of the lead fight on the opening day, Neuville quickly established himself as the best of the rest before coming out swinging on Saturday and closing in on Ogier and team-mate Lappi.
When Ogier was caught out, Hyundai’s team strategy worked out beautifully as Lappi backed off and Neuville stayed committed (unaware that Ogier was off) to soar into a lead he wouldn’t relinquish.
He remains some 25 points behind the reigning champion, but with Ott Tänak and M-Sport struggling to hit top form and a pace advantage over Elfyn Evans at the minute, plus two team-mates duty-bound to support him, Neuville certainly has all the tools he could ever need to become world champion this year.
Rovanperä’s in control of the championship
But having said all of that, Kalle Rovanperä must be considered favorite for a second world title now. That’s if he wasn’t already after that dominant performance in Portugal a few weeks ago.
Rovanperä came to Sardinia not expecting to achieve too much on an event he openly doesn’t enjoy. But instead, he actually managed to increase his championship buffer by seven with a fine third place and yet another powerstage win.
It’s these weekends that will make the difference come the end of the season.
Rovanperä’s off days are what most would consider good days. He’s simply too fast, too consistent and too efficient at maximizing opportunities for many to handle.
There’s still a long way to go and any non-score could flip it all on its head, but after such a close fight at the start of the season the onus is now on the rest to catch Rovanperä before he disappears too far into the distance.
Lappi’s a threat anywhere
Esapekka Lappi wasn’t messing about when asked what his pre-event target was by DirtFish last Wednesday.
“I think on gravel it needs to be podium now, every time.”
But given his pace and form in México and Portugal, Lappi had every right to back himself. Particularly now considering that he, for the vast majority of Sardinia, was the fastest Hyundai and was firmly in the thick of the lead fight.
What Lappi would have been able to achieve had it not been Neuville who ran with him once Ogier exited the contest is a tantalizing thought but ultimately a moot point. The Finn played along to the team strategy and didn’t challenge his team-mate.
If Lappi is bearing a grudge though, he is at least doing a good job at the moment of demonstrating that Hyundai was perhaps premature in throwing all of its weight behind Neuville.
On current form, Lappi looks just as big a threat as his more decorated stablemate.
Loubet can’t catch a break
As the old saying goes, if Pierre-Louis Loubet didn’t have bad luck he’d have no luck at all. Thirteenth in the championship, 104 points adrift of leader Kalle Rovanperä, really isn’t a fair reflection of the level at which he’s currently driving.
Loubet’s first full season as a top-line WRC driver started on a frustrating note with that power-steering failure on the Monte, but it has all snowballed from there.
He’s not perfect and has been susceptible to the odd mistake, but he simply cannot catch a break at the moment.
Loubet was doing all the right things in Sardinia – not getting carried away with his ambitions like he did in Portugal, driving sensible and climbing to third by Friday lunchtime.
But from there he was denied the chance to produce anything. The car becoming jammed in gear and unable to move in the time control of the afternoon’s first stage preceded some sort of failure that led to Loubet going off and retiring for the entire weekend.
Maybe he’s been walking under a few too many ladders or something, but Loubet must be wondering when his fortunes will change.
Ogier’s definitely not a title contender
Sébastien Ogier would argue he never was. He was only appearing in the WRC this year to fight for rally wins and help Toyota to a third straight manufacturers’ crown.
But the rest of us – we were drawn in by the unavoidable. Even though he was missing rallies, Ogier was still firmly in the championship picture. Could eight really become nine?After Sardinia, the biggest of upsets looks extremely unlikely now.
Halfway through Saturday, Ogier was still in the picture. Leading the rally with Rovanperä fourth, before the consideration of powerstage points Ogier would’ve been second and 16 points down in the championship.
His early exit, which of course handed Rovanperä more points, means he currently lies 48 points down – the equivalent of nearly two rally wins.
It was fun while it lasted, but considering Ogier will more than likely sit out both the next two rounds after Kenya, it’s time we rule Ogier out of the title equation. Any talk of a title bid was only ever sustainable if he didn’t make mistakes.
M-Sport’s Fiesta Rally2 is on the money
The resurgence of Adrien Fourmaux and the Ford Fiesta Rally2 has been one of the stories of the spring in the WRC. From the Monte Carlo Rally where the package looked quite hopeless to now where Fourmaux was leading the rally from the front and all set to win, the turnaround has been mighty.
Fourmaux was unable to deliver the headline result that he and M-Sport craved, caught out on the treacherous powerstage and destroying his suspension, but there are still plenty of positives to take from this showing.
There was no fortune involved – Fourmaux proved that he and the Fiesta were fastest on merit, and that’s exactly what both driver and team want to show.
Eventual winner Andreas Mikkelsen, who helped develop the much-talked about Škoda Fabia RS Rally2, was certainly impressed.
“Adrien’s done a fantastic weekend and the whole M-Sport team has so many positives to take out from here,” Mikkelsen said. “I think anyway they should be happy, they have done an amazing rally.”
Wet Sardinia is chaotic
There haven’t been too many wet editions of Rally Italy Sardinia in the past, save for 2012, so last weekend’s experience was a slight trip into the unknown for several drivers.
Heavy rain transformed this usually bone-dry rally into a mud bath. Stages that have already been likened to Safari Rally Kenya after recce basically became the Safari due to the deep puddles that formed.
And the water crossings caused their fair share of havoc too, sidelining both Ott Tänak and Takamoto Katsuta and causing problems for Elfyn Evans and Sébastien Ogier too.
It certainly wasn’t the kind of rally drivers were expecting – not that should have deterred them much. As Evans wonderfully put: “You have to adjust, it’s rally at the end of the day. It’s part of the game, we always know this is a possibility.”
But what the weather did was help make an event that some – like Rovanperä and actually, this writer – don’t particularly enjoy into a bit of a classic.
And, ironically, with all the talk about how the reduced testing days make things complicated for drivers, this was arguably the ideal way for the WRC’s finest to prepare for their African adventure in just under three weeks’ time.