Close finishes. WRC2 has had its two closest ever this year, but it’s been a while since the top tier of the World Rally Championship had a really tight one.
Even Croatia Rally, which produced a couple of thrillers in its first two editions, resulted in a comfortable victory for Elfyn Evans this time around.
You have to go back to the 2022 Ypres Rally for the last time a winning margin was even less than 10 seconds. Ott Tänak defeated Elfyn Evans by five ticks of the second hand on that occasion.
Maybe that will change this weekend? After all, 2021 Croatia Rally aside, the 2018 edition of Rally Italy was the last time we saw less than a second separate the runner-up from the spoils of victory.
Back then, Sébastien Ogier was a five-time world champion and resigned to opening the road at almost every event. But after Ogier retired his M-Sport-prepared Ford Fiesta WRC from Rally of Portugal, with Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC winning the event, it meant Neuville led the standings by 19 points.
Now the Belgian faced the prospect of sweeping the loose Sardinian stages for everyone else on the first day of Rally Italy. Except that he wouldn’t have to. Much to his delight, and Ogier’s chagrin, rain fell over the island to largely eliminate that disadvantage.
It was Neuville’s team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen who led the way once the rally got going properly on Friday morning. Neuville was second – 14 seconds back – at lunchtime service, while Ogier was down in fifth.
But just when it looked like Mikkelsen might be getting on top of his travails with the i20, its gearbox let him down. At the same time, Ogier was digging deep.
Heavy rainfall had made conditions for a second run through 14-mile Tula stage more akin to Wales in winter than midsummer Mediterranean. Already rutted, those ruts were now full of water. As Neuville splashed his way through, Ogier’s charge was 17.5s faster. Suddenly, the champion was 8.5s ahead of his rival.
The M-Sport driver consolidated his lead over the remainder of Friday afternoon, as Neuville admitted to reverting towards his wilder days of the past. The gap was 18.9s at the end of the day, in favor of Ogier.
With the sunshine returning, the pair traded times on Saturday’s first two stages before the momentum swung back towards the Hyundai driver. As Ogier struggled for rhythm, Neuville pulled a blinder through the 18 miles of Monte Lerno, faster by 14.6s. The gap was less than 5s as they returned to service.
The afternoon kicked off with a short superspecial where Ogier stalled, letting Neuville close to within 3s. Ogier hit straight back to double his advantage as Neuville punctured. But that was a minor blip in the Belgian’s blistering charge.
Neuville continued chipping away and was 3.9s down heading into the final day. He was nearly a second faster on Sunday’s opener, another 1.8s on the next, and half a second on the penultimate stage. Heading into the Cala Flumini powerstage, Ogier’s advantage was down to just 0.8s after three-and-half hours of competition.
Neuville had the bit between his teeth. Even being a little ragged at the start of the four-miler, bouncing out of a rut and onto two wheels, wouldn’t prevent him going fastest by 1.5s. Victory was his by just 0.7s, in what was then the joint-third closest finish of all time.
“I had to try,” said the winner, who extended his championship lead to 27 points. “I gave it everything.”
But Ogier remained bullish about the prospects of a sixth consecutive title. “It is still good points for the championship,” he said. “We lost the battle, but we haven’t lost the war.
“There are still six rounds to go, it isn’t time to panic. Thierry was lucky with the rain but there will be another rally where he loses time as the road opener.”