The 2020 World Rally Championship is certainly one that’s going to be remembered, no matter which way the current five-way title battle decisively swings. The COVID-19 pandemic has done its best to detract from the competition, but so far the WRC’s best are stealing the limelight.
Coronavirus is having no direct impact on the competition but it has brought about a revised series calendar. Not only are the drivers looking at just a seven-round season – the shortest in world championship history (previous shortest seasons were 1974 and 1995 with eight) – but the make-up of those rallies are different too.
Itineraries have changed, new rallies have entered the fold and for those that are still standing, some have moved date to create an all-new challenge. Rally Italy Sardinia fits into that last category, but its switch from June to October isn’t actually a brand-new concept.
Sardinia’s very first WRC round back in 2004 was held on October 1-3 and formed the third of Petter Solberg’s impressive hat-trick of wins following his terrifying crash in Germany that year.
But the 2012 iteration of the Sardinian event is perhaps the most interesting, as it moved to October for just a single year with the 2011 and ’13 rallies taking place in May and June respectively. That means it could well give us some pointers as to what we can expect in Sardinia this year.
Unlike today, eight years ago the title had already been decided before Sardinia, with Sébastien Loeb wrapping up world championship number nine at home in France just two weeks prior.
The gloves were therefore off, with little left to dispute. Loeb’s Citroën team-mate Mikko Hirvonen said at the time: “Everything is basically done now so everyone just wants to win rallies. I’m still chasing my first win for Citroën so I’m sure there’s going to be some interesting fights.”
Hirvonen had traded Cumbria for Paris in 2012 after six years in the blue of Ford, but 11 rallies into his Citroën career he was – as he said – winless despite winning on the road in Portugal. He was later excluded with victory going to privateer Mads Østberg – still Østberg’s only WRC victory to date.
The drivers were aware they were in for a challenge with poorer weather than normal and a modified route mixing up the event.
“It is a difficult rally with the surface because there’s been a lot of rain now,” described Petter Solberg. “It’s been changing a little bit the road surface.
“On the top it’s good grip, then it’s going to a little bit more slippery then good grip again. It’s not an easy one.”
Loeb offered: “It’s very difficult, very narrow, very slippery with lots of stones at the side of the road and on the grass so that you don’t see it. So it’s really important to be precise, not to have [a] big slide because you can lose a wheel very quickly.”
However it wasn’t Loeb, nor Solberg, Hirvonen or even Østberg that was in the hottest form as Rally Italy got underway. Back in the era when WRC rallies had a qualifying stage prior to the event to determine the opening day’s running order, it was the works Ford team that was setting the pace.
Jari-Matti Latvala – who had announced he was leaving Ford for Volkswagen next year in the lead up to the event – went quickest ahead of team-mate Solberg and bravely elected to start Thursday’s two stages as the first car on the road.
“Back in 2009 when we did these stages in this area in the morning there was massive dust and I won the rally because I was first car on the road and others were suffering from the dust,” Latvala reasoned. “Based on that and the second thing is that the darkness is coming.”
Latvala wasn’t wrong. Thursday’s short itinerary featured two passes of the Terranova stage with the second of those beginning at 1816 local time. With the sun setting at around that same time, those starting the stage earlier would benefit from better visibility.
The Finn had expected to lose time on the first pass but said a time loss of around 10-15 seconds would be fine for him to make up on the second. But over 20s lost “would be a problem”. Fortunately for him, he lost 15.3s to stage winner Loeb so looked to be in the box seat if his pre-event calculations had proved true.
Ultimately he would never find out, as a front-left puncture aboard his Ford Fiesta RS WRC dropped him to sixth and 42.1s down on overnight leader Loeb. It was business as usual for the then 75-time rally winner who held a 1.1s lead over team-mate Hirvonen. But things were to change on what was a chaotic Friday.
Throughout the 2012 season, Loeb would only finish lower than second three times and Sardinia was one of those occasions. Remember his own advice about the importance of being precise? Loeb seemingly didn’t, as he failed to listen to himself.
On SS3 Monte Lerno, the world champion’s DS3 WRC was out. With the rear of his Citroën stepping wide, Loeb suffered a high-speed spin after losing grip on the loose stones. It looked dramatic, but not terminal. That was until he discovered his steering was damaged and he was forced to park up further down the stage.
“We were pushing really hard and in a little junction I think the note was a little bit too high and I came in a bit too fast in the corner, hit the stone on the exit [and] it put the front in and then I hit some concrete poll,” Loeb explained.
“I had a spin but we broke something on the steering because I continued after but [the] steering was hard and a few corners after it blocked completely so we had to stop.”
Loeb’s demise opened the floodgates for Hirvonen but he was rattled, admitting he was “on the brakes all the time” after seeing his team-mate out. But despite this hesitancy, Citroën’s number two won the test and would be the only lead runner to make it through the day.
Latvala’s rally ended in bizarre fashion, parked on top of a wall, on the next stage, Castelsardo. “I run wide on the left-hander first and I hit something,” he said. “The car was alright to drive but I started to feel that the radiator is leaking.
“I stopped concentrating on my notes and then just suddenly the next right-hander came like a surprise for me. I tried to save it going straight but there was a gate and the gate was ground with the massive concrete stone so I hit the gate and basically landed on the concrete stone.”
Ford team-mate Solberg kept Hirvonen under enough pressure but his challenge faltered three stages after Latvala when his Fiesta hit something solid and spun around.
An incredulous Solberg mused: “Very disappointed, very disappointed. [We were] going quite calm and quite good, I don’t know [what happened]. Go down and take a look at [the road and tell me] what happened because I don’t understand it.”
Mads Østberg should then have led the chase but bald tires on his Fiesta at the end of SS5 pointed to more major problems. A rear driveshaft had broken and he’d fall to seventh at the end of Friday.
Three of this year’s WRC title chargers had very mixed fortunes back in 2012. Thierry Neuville was another casualty of the calamitous Friday as he “was not concentrated enough”, over-committed to a left-hander, hooked the rear-right wheel of his DS3 WRC wide and rolled onto his side on the day’s first stage.
As he tried to right the car onto its wheels, Neuville burned his hand just to add, in this case, injury to the insult. He later retired for the day with an oil leak caused by the accident.
Sébastien Ogier meanwhile was the sensation of the rally, winning SS5 outright in his Škoda Fabia S2000 to lie fourth overall at the end of the day. The two M-Sport Ford cars weathered the storm perfectly as the stages claimed several others, with Evgeny Novikov leading team-mate Ott Tänak in second and third respectively.
Ogier’s heroics would continue into Saturday and Sunday as despite losing fourth to the recovering Østberg, he would finish the rally an incredible fifth overall as Volkswagen Motorsport continued its learning of the WRC rounds before its 2013 campaign with the Polo R WRC.
To take fifth, Ogier had to repel Chris Atkinson’s more potent Mini John Cooper Works WRC and was doing just that; his challenge becoming that bit more relaxed when ‘Atko’ punctured on the powerstage.
This battle, and Østberg’s rise from seventh to fourth, was all that Sardinia had left in terms of action. The top three ended up all playing it sensibly in order to bag incredibly important results.
The third place was Tänak’s first WRC podium, second equalled Novikov’s best WRC result (from Portugal the same year) and the win was Hirvonen’s first for Citroën and broke a spell of five consecutive second place finishes in Italy.
“I’m still a little nervous, it’s like I won a rally [for the] first time,” Hirvonen said after what would prove to be his final WRC victory.
“I proved my strongest point in a way that I can be really consistent and win rallies, but still we didn’t have a big fight all three days and I’m sure that’s something we’re going to face next year so I need to be ready for that.”
While indeed it transpired that nobody was ready for Ogier and VW in 2013, Rally Italy 2012 can at least provide some potential insight as to how this year’s quintet can expect to fare in the Mediterranean.
While Elfyn Evans – who made his World Rally Car debut on the same rally the following year – and Kalle Rovanperä have never driven the Sardinian roads in October, the reality is it’ll be new to everybody.
And if the 2012 event is anything to go by, it could be chaotic. Don’t make the mistake of thinking Evans’ 18-point championship lead is safe. It absolutely isn’t.