Red Bull Motorsports
Sébastien Ogier gave the question some thought, then replied. He had a better idea, a better use of his time. Such is the seven-time champion’s comfort with his standing and his place on planet earth, questions about the World Rally Championship hold no fear for him.
Being sacrificed, first on the road on day one of Rally Italia Sardegna wasn’t high on the Frenchman’s list of priorities for the first weekend of summer. In answering the question… no, he wasn’t looking forward to round five.
“It will be a shit weekend,” he said. “I should have stayed home.”
By Sunday afternoon, his view has changed slightly.
“I’m quite glad I came now,” he offered with a slightly rueful, wry smile.
Sardinia hadn’t been the happiest hunting ground for Ogier in recent years. Since a hat-trick of wins with Volkswagen between 2013 and 2015, the Frenchman hadn’t won. And he hadn’t seen success as an option this time around. His position as championship leader meant he would be first to drive the tricky Friday stages around Olbia. And that, he predicted, would be his undoing.
With the roads re-surfaced and coated with loose gravel, his Toyota Yaris WRC would act as a high-speed road sweeper. The pain was twofold: the grip beneath Ogier was compromised and getting rid of that top layer of loose meant furthering his rivals’ advantage in terms of adhesion.
Friday highlights from Italy
An Ogier masterclass in Italian
Toyota driver Ogier is at his absolute best when he’s facing adversity with his back to the wall. And we saw the absolute best of him on Friday. He threw caution to the wind and his Yaris WRC at the hills inland from Olbia’s sun-drenched coastline.
Leading was out of the question, the best he could hope for was to stay in touch. He did that. And more.
Hyundai driver Ott Tänak was the Sardinian express train into the weekend. From four cars behind Ogier, the Estonian reeled off the fastest times to hit the front of an event he won five years ago. With his lead growing and Saturday lunchtime approaching, Tänak committed the i20 Coupe WRC to a fast-left and unavoidably clouted a rock. A wheel was ripped from the Hyundai, the leader’s race run.
Even with Tänak out of the way, Ogier still had plenty of work to do. Back-to-back Rally Italia winner Dani Sordo was still ahead, still offering Hyundai hope of a fifth island win in six years. Ogier’s peerless drive soon overpowered the Spaniard, who then tripped himself over when he rolled out on Saturday afternoon.
Saturday action from Italy
That left Ogier to head team-mate Elfyn Evans home. The Briton struggled to get comfortable with the Toyota on day one, but his speed grew as the weekend progressed. The only potential issue for the two Yaris drivers came on the final stage, when a manmade watersplash briefly silenced Evans’ car and caused the rally leader’s to misfire.
Both made it to the finish to deliver Toyota a second WRC win in three weeks.
Toyota’s gain is very much Hyundai’s loss
For the second world championship round in succession, Tänak lost the lead with a wheel-related problem. For the second event in succession, it wasn’t the Estonian’s fault. For the second event in succession, Tänak watched as his route back into a championship fight was blocked.
The i20 driver was in no mood for the media in the hours that followed and Hyundai Motorsport team principal Andrea Adamo wasn’t exactly his usual lucid self.
Asked what his driver had told him following the SS12 moment, Adamo admitted there hadn’t been much discussion in the immediate aftermath.
“When he will be calm, we will speak with him and we will try to understand,” said the Italian. “Now it’s not the smartest move for me to ask him what has happened. For sure, there is one wheel less on the car.”
Sunday action from Italy
Very much on the back foot coming into Olbia, missing out on a third big score from the first five rallies, Tänak knows nothing short of a perfect run from here until November’s season finale in Japan will be enough to play him back into contention for a second title.
And, of similarly significant concern to Adamo is the fact the manufacturers’ crown is beginning to look less steady on the head of Hyundai. Thirty-seven down on Toyota ahead of Italy, the Koreans head to Africa with a deficit of 49 points. For Tänak it’s worse. Fifty-seven points separate him and Ogier.
“We take it rally-by-rally now,” he said, when asked the obvious question about his diminishing title challenge.
For the second rally in succession, only one i20 Coupe WRC made it through the entire route of 20 stages and 303 kilometres in typically baking Sardinian summer conditions.
This time it was Thierry Neuville. The Belgian stood on the podium’s bottom step after a lacklustre rally in which he’d started to find his feet with the car just in time for it to become clear that pushing to chase the Toyotas ahead wasn’t an option.
As bad as Hyundai’s rally was, M-Sport Ford’s Sardinian outing was worse. A mistake by Teemu Suninen ruled the Finn out on the opening stage, while Gus Greensmith’s sister Ford Fiesta WRC was hampered by persistent technical troubles.
Adrien Fourmaux’s stellar season went slightly awry when he damaged the front-left suspension of his Ford Fiesta Rally2 MkII on Friday morning. The Frenchman will be looking to hit form when he returns to the top flight Fiesta WRC in time for the series’ return to Africa for Safari Rally Kenya later this month.