Since returning from the Covid-19 hiatus last September, the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team (hereafter Hyundai Team) has recorded consecutive double podium finishes in Rally Estonia and Rally Turkey. The team is in a fierce final spurt for the 2020 WRC Manufacturer Championship; less than ten points have separated the Hyundai Team and the Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team (hereafter Toyota Team) in the last three races.
Before the opening of the Rally Italy, however, the FIA made a surprise announcement: the addition of the Rally Monza to the season schedule. Previously, the shortened 2020 WRC season was to end in Belgium, totaling 7 rounds. The Autodromo Nazionale de Monza race circuit in Monza, Italy, was added last-minute for what would become the Round 8—one that will, hopefully, be a thrilling title decider for the fans.
Since 2013, Rally Italy has always been held in June, one of the hottest months for the country. Not this year, however. With inevitable delays to the schedule due to the pandemic, the rally this year was held in slight chills of October, presenting different conditions for the racers. The road surface in Sardinia is covered in thin, slippery gravel and sand, which means that every passage of a rally car is prone to change the surface condition for the cars that trail. Generally, the “pioneers” of the course have it worse, because they effectively end up “cleaning” the road surface for the competitors in the rearview. But starting late isn’t exactly a viable strategy either, as the cars ahead end up “digging” the road surface with their tires, which often becomes an unexpected trap for the unsuspecting driver.
The course mainly comprises narrow, mountainous roads winding about the little town of Alghero, Sardinia. Its dizzying narrowness smirks formidably at drivers as if to remind them that a single mistake may spell their ruin. But from the observer’s standpoint, the course is mesmerizingly beautiful. Set against the backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea, it may seem that the course’s every curve brings the next picturesque marvel. Ironically, this very beauty is the source of treachery as well—the sun rays deflected against the sea can blind the drivers, making them a significant variable during dawn and dusk.
The 2020 Rally Italy includes 16 stages in total, spanning 238.84 km in total distance. The Hyundai Team entered three i20 Coupe WRC Rally Cars, driven by Thierry Neuville, Ott Tanak, and the surprise winner of last year’s Rally Italy, Dani Sordo.
In fact, these three drivers have won in Italy the last three years—In 2018, memorably, Neuville had won over Sebastien Ogier by a narrow margin of 0.7 seconds in a fierce race that left the palms sweaty up till the last moment. The 2019 rally also had its drama. Ott Tanak, then part of the Toyota Team, experienced power steering issues in the 19th stage and fell below chasing Dani Sordo, who ultimately won. Indeed, Drama has not been in short supply in Rally Italy.
Leading up to the rally, the Hyundai Team (165 points) were chasing the Toyota Team (174 points) by 9 points in the manufacturer championship. With the season nearly at an end, the results in Italy would have huge ramifications on the final championship table.
On the first day, spanning 95.25 km across 6 stages, the man of the race was Dani Sordo. Sordo rose to first place in SS4 and never looked back. Zooming further away from second-place Teemu Suninen (Ford), he stood at first place at the day’s end, with 17 seconds separating him from the pack. Sordo took 4 out of 6 stages on whole in a demonstration of complete domination.
Neuville, meanwhile, opted for stability and had even opened the race with two spare wheels and tires aboard. This arrangement backfired a bit, causing his rally car to slip more than the usual. But while he initially struggled to find his name among the leaderboard, he did pick up his pace in short order. Neuville had begun the Friday proceedings in 7th, but by the day’s end, he had risen to third.
Unfortunately, the course wasn’t as kind to Tanak—his rally car experienced suspension issues, causing him to lose approximately two minutes, enough to essentially eliminate his chance. Having suffered a big blow on his championship aspirations, Tanak was visibly disappointed.
Ford’s Suninen had kept his grasp on the lead up to SS3. Predicting an afternoon rise in the road surface temperature, he had changed two tires to hard-type. But the real conditions went against his prediction, causing the struggles that allowed Sordo to overtake him. Others suffered from hurdles big and small, a reminder of the notorious rigor of the Sardinian circuit. Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta, the lone Asian representative among the participants, retired with an accident. Esepekka Lappi (Ford) retired as well from engine troubles. Kalle Rovanpera (Toyota) experienced steering troubles.
The Saturday stages, spanning 101.69 km, represented the longest day in the competition and thus the key point of the Rally Italy. The day began with a queasy moment for Sordo, who barely escaped a crash with a passing cow pack by a hairbreadth. Luckily, the cows evacuated the road in time for Sordo to pass unscathed. “The cows—they were startling,” Sordo said after the race. They represent a unique feature of rally motorsports like WRC, in which an uncontrollable variable sometimes heavily influences the outcome.
With the scary moment with the cows behind him, Sordo continued to dominate. By the day’s end, he had expanded the gap between him and second place to 30 seconds. His teammate Neuville, too, were trading the second place seat with Ogier repeatedly, with only five seconds separating the two over the course of Saturday’s race. In SS10, Neuville overtook Ogier for second place and kept it for two stages—until he made a minor mistake of breaking late and allowed Ogier to surpass him again.
Meanwhile, Saturday had more victims to add to the already extensive list from Friday. Toyota’s Rovanpera hit a tree and retired. Ford’s Gus Greensmith retired from an alternator problem. Katsuta experienced brake issues and could not continue on normally.
With only the Sunday left, only 41.9 kilometers remained in the rally. Sordo led by 27.4 seconds, a comfortable margin, but the Rally Italy left no margin for comfort. Given the treacherous road conditions, anything could happen. And of course, the Power Stage that may determine the driver championship title race would be held later that day, a battleground for all teams’ strategic maneuvers. The drivers and the team staff entered the Sunday proceedings with added focus.
Sordo caused some anxiety to start, losing 12.1 seconds in the first stage of the day (SS13). Nearly half of his lead margin was suddenly gone; his rear bumper on the passenger’s seat side was torn off, causing a nail-biting scene for the Hyundai fans.
The battle for second place was still raging on. In SS13, Ogier extended his lead over Neuville, an inauspicious beginning of the day for the Hyundai Team. In SS14, Katsuta’s crash put the race on a brief hold. The Toyota rookie was speeding through a narrow road when his car tumbled over and rolled forward several times. Luckily, both the driver and the co-driver emerged from the vehicle uninjured, but the rally had to be paused until the course was restored.
When the race began again, Sordo was heating up. He ended the SS14 with the second-fastest record, stepping closer to the trophy that was now his to lose. Ogier in second and Neuville in third were right on his tail throughout, but he did not lose his focus and expanded his lead to 16 seconds. Neuville’s final spurt was also remarkable. He won the SS16, bringing the gap between him and Ogier to a tiny 0.1-second difference; with only two stages left, the battle for second place was essentially at point zero.
SS17, though, threw clouds at the outcome that the Hyundai Team had hoped. Ogier was absolutely dominant in SS17, having Neuville trail him by 1.7 seconds, and he was also catching up with Sordo—only 9.2 seconds now separated him from the lead. Of course, 9.2 seconds were not exactly a difference to be surmounted in a single stage, but his domination in SS17 again revived the mantra that “anything could happen” in Italy.
And here it was—the SS18, the final stage that will decide the podium. As it was also a Power Stage that presents additional points, what was at stake was enough to command the focus of rally fans worldwide. The starting order was the reverse of the standings: Neuville, Ogier, and Sordo, in that order. Starting first, Neuville was superb, rounding the course with the record of 4:46.4. He looked to Ogier with high hopes, praying for an upset. And while Ogier started 1.7 seconds ahead of Neuville, he lost his pace in the middle of the stage and ended the course with the 4:49.1 record—2.7 points behind Neuville. Meaning, Neuville had won second, by a measly one-second difference. It was another dramatic finish for the Belgian in Italy, rivaling the thriller he and Ogier gave the world in 2018.
And then, with the comfortable 9.2 seconds of lead in mind, Sordo played it safe and won it all. He gifted the Hyundai Team its fourth trophy in Italy, starting from the one in 2016 to three consecutive trophies from 2018 to 2020. The win also marked six consecutive podium finishes by the Hyundai Team in Italy and a third consecutive double podium finish this year since the Rally Estonia last September.
With a fantastic finish in Italy, the Hyundai Team added 43 points—the largest amount a team can earn in a single rally—to its manufacturer point tally, overtaking the Toyota Team for the lead. There are now seven points separating Hyundai and Toyota at the leaderboard.
In the driver championship category, Elfyn Evans of Toyota, who finished fourth, retained his position atop the standings. Ogier kept his second place as well. But Neuville rose to third, powered by his second-place finish at Rally Italy, and Ott Tanak’s five points during the Power Stage helped him stay afloat in fourth place.
From the Hyundai Team’s perspective, producing a driver champion has become quite unlikely at this point. Neuville and Tanak are 24 and 29 points away from Evans, respectively, a large difference to make up within two rallies that remain. Mathematically, though, it is possible to earn 30 points (25 pts, 1st place; 5 pts, Power Stage) for each stage, so there is still some hope left if the cards fall the Hyundai drivers’ way.
Indeed, if there is anything we learned from this year’s Rally Italy, it is that perseverance is rewarded. The heroics of Dani Sordo, the consecutive winner of Rally Italy 2019-20, and the tenacious Thierry Neuville, who battled it till the end for second place, reveal that the team’s pursuit for glory is still ongoing. It helps that the remaining rallies take place in Belgium, Neuville’s home ground, and in Monza, where the Hyundai Team has always been strong.
In each of the three rallies since the season resumed in September, the Hyundai Team has recorded a double podium finish. This remarkable record is a testament to the powerful performance of the i20 Coupe WRC Rally Car and proof of the team’s world-class talents. With such a hot streak, perhaps we should be forgiven for expecting even greater glory for the team—a sweep of the remaining two events, the consecutive title of manufacturer champion, and even a fighter’s chance at driver championship. We now wait for more drama, hopeful.