WRC Round 5 Rally Italia Sardegna was held as the second gravel (unpaved road) rally of the season following Round 4. Sardinia, Italy’s second-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, is notorious for its harsh conditions. Not only the high speed and narrow road width but also the sweltering heat eats away the stamina of the participants and the durability of the rally car and tires.
When Rally Italy started in 1928, Sanremo, famous as the city of flowers, was the stage. Italy became part of the WRC in 1973. At this rally, Michèle Mouton, the most successful female driver in her motorsports history, earned her first WRC trophy in 1981. In 2004, it changed from tarmac to gravel as it became Rally Sardinia.
Co-drivers would rarely make mistakes on country roads lined with bushes from side to side. That doesn’t mean this course will be easy. The bushes and the rocks in them greatly threaten a rally car’s aero parts and tires. The gravel and sandy road surface are easily dug up, quickly revealing a layer of hard stone.
What bothers the participants above all else is the temperature; The Mediterranean climate is hot and dry like a desert in summer. Especially this weekend, the daytime maximum temperature is predicted to reach 40°C, threatening the drivers. The rally car is sealed to prevent dust from entering, not to mention the air conditioner not working. The heat from the engine and exhaust pipe is transferred directly into the cabin; for the drivers, the race becomes a battle against themselves.
The Hyundai team kept the Rally Portugal entry list intact – Ott Tänak, Dani Sordo, and Thierry Neuville, who took 2nd in the Drivers’ Championship and 2nd in Rally Italy (2016, 2018). Sordo is quickly adapting to Rally 1, standing on the podium in Portugal, where he played for the first time this season. Moreover, he performed well in Sardinia, Italy, winning the trophy in 2019 and 2020.
For the Sardinia course, Sordo says, “the rally has very narrow roads, and the outer line can also be slippery, so you have to be clever and careful to stay in the lines. If you go wide, you can hit some large stones. It’s also normal to adjust the set-up of the car between the first and second pass here because of the difference in grip.”
The Toyota team had four rally cars – for the lead of the championship Kalle Rovanperä, Elfyn Evans, Takamoto Katsuta, and Esapekka Lappi replacing Ogier. The Ford team includes Craig Breen, Gus Greensmith, Adrien Fourmaux and Pierre-Louis Loubet.
This year, a service park was also set up in Alghero, located on the western side of the island. The picturesque scenery of cafes and ice cream parlors lined up against the backdrop of a European village, and the beautiful Mediterranean coast looks interesting. On Thursday evening, after the opening ceremony in Olbia, on the eastern side of the island, the racers began to compete on a special stage set up nearby. Olbia is where the service park was located in 2004 when Rally Sardinia started. Thousands of spectators flocked to the 3.23km course of the complex road in the city center and cheered enthusiastically. In the short opening stage, Neuville was the fastest and took the lead.
At 5:55 a.m. on Friday, the cars leaving Olvia moved south and started the day at the SS2 Terranova. With 8 stages (SS2~SS9) of 133.56km, this is the longest day of the game. In SS2 Terranova starting Friday, Evans was the fastest. Then, in the next stage, Lappi recorded the top time, and the overall lead continued to change. However, Evans retired from SS4 due to a broken cooling system. Championship leader Rovanpera was also unable to raise the pace, as he was in charge of cleaning the pavement in the front row.
In SS4 repeating Terranova again, the Hyundai trio – Sordo, Tanak, and Neuville – were the fastest. Tanak took the overall lead from SS4 and then competed against Lappi. At the end of SS6, the gap between Tanak and Lappi was 6.4 seconds. However, at the end of the SS7 that followed, Tanak took second place due to a drivetrain failure. He could have been further behind as one wheel was powerless, but luckily he didn’t widen the gap with Lappi as the last two stages on Friday were canceled after a delay.
At the close of Friday, Tanak trailed lead Lappi by 0.7 seconds. Immediately behind, Ford’s Loubet and Breen competed fiercely by 0.4 seconds. Sordo, who could not find the setting value at the beginning, gradually increased his pace and placed 5th overall. Fourmaux, Katsuta, Rovanpera, and Neuville followed. It was a close battle of 16.1 seconds from the lead to 6th place Sordo. Neuville lost more than a minute and 40 seconds to a driveshaft problem in SS4, pulling him away from the lead.
As expected, the participants suffered from the harsh heat. But the bigger problem was dirt. Rally cars these days with high speed and large aero parts disturb the airflow a lot. The three-minute departure interval was not enough for the dust to settle, and this problem was especially noticeable in the dark morning. In the end, the departure interval of Rally 1 on Saturday morning was widened to 4 minutes.
Saturday started the day at 5:15. At 7am, including the 12.03km-long SS10 Tempio Pausania, a total of 131.82km for eight stages is a little shorter than Friday. Instead, the SS15 and SS17 Monte Lerno Di Pattada features the famous Micky’s Jump. Long jumps don’t necessarily help the record, but no driver wants to disappoint a huge crowd.
In the opening SS10, while Lappi retired due to a broken left rear suspension, Tanak returned to the overall lead with the top time. Sordo also overtook Loubet to finish third overall. As Lappi retired, Toyota’s drivers fell behind from the lead. After that, Hyundai’s trio led by Tanak was the fastest in SS11 Erula-Tula. Tanak widened the gap with his competitors by conquering three of the four morning stages. By lunchtime, Sordo was 10 seconds behind second-placed Breen, while Loubet was 14 seconds behind.
On the other hand, Neuville’s car was severely damaged by rolling over in SS12 and retired. Sordo, who was nearly nine seconds slower than Breen in SS16, lost a chance to catch up in an accident by Fourmaux in the final SS17 of the day. Fourmaux’s Puma rally car spun and blocked the road, stopping all cars behind. Organizers gave Tanak, Breen, and Sordo the same record as Rovanpera’s stage top time. At the end of Saturday, the overall leader was Tanak of the Hyundai Team, 2nd place was Breen, and 3rd place was Sordo. Loubet was 25 seconds behind Sordo. Rovanpera finished fifth after Fourmaux had an accident on the final stage, followed by Katsuta and Greensmith.
Sunday, the final battle was held in the 39.30km-long SS18-SS21 section on the west coast close to Alghero, which repeats the Cala Flumini and Sassari-Argentera stages twice each. The final SS21 was also a power stage at the same time. Tanak was 48 seconds ahead of Breen, and Sordo was also 20.8 seconds behind second-placed Breen. Due to the considerable gap between most of the top players, it seemed highly likely that the ranking would remain the same.
In the opening SS18, Tanak secured the lead position with the top time. Until SS19, Breen and Sordo had maintained a gap of about 24 seconds. After Tanak conquered SS20, he widened the gap with Breen to 58.2 seconds. Now all that is left is the SS21, which is also a power stage.
Tanak ran through the final stage at a leisurely pace and earned his first trophy of the season. It was not only the first victory for the Hyundai team, but Sordo finished third and achieved a double podium, and the Hyundai team dominated Rally Italy. Neuville didn’t score, but has earned 5 power points from SS21 to pursue the Toyota team. Thanks to this, the difference between the manufacturers’ scores was reduced from 59 to 39. Tanak, Breen, and Sordo scored the podium in that order, with Loubet finishing his best in 4th. Rovanpera, Katsuta, Greensmith, Gryazin, Solans and Huttunen made the top ten.
Hyundai once again showed its potential in Rally Italy. They have won 5 of their last 7 matches (16, 18, 19, 20, 22). In WRC Round 6, participants cross to the African continent and run through Kenya, the wild land, on June 23-26. The new rally cars will again be tested for durability and prowess in the infamous Safari Rally.
By Sujin Lee, automobile critic
Excited about the 1991 establishment of the first domestic auto mania magazine 〈Car Vision〉, I sent a series of long letters there that led to an unexpected hire. After becoming an editor and the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉 and 〈Car Vision〉, I have started a new career as an auto critic. My recent interests include cutting-edge techs like electric cars, connected cars, and autonomous driving, but the ‘otaku’ in me doesn’t want internal combustion engines to disappear either.