Sardinia, Italy’s second island in the Mediterranean Sea, is filled with the roar of rally cars, dust, and shouts of spectators every early summer. Rally Italia, which has been held since the inception of the WRC in 1973, was originally held in Sanremo on the mainland. In 2004, the Italian car club ACI decided to relocate to Olbia, on the eastern side of the island of Sardegna, instead of the economically struggling Sanremo. Thanks to this, the Italian Rally, which was a Tarmac Rally, changed to a Gravel Rally from this point on. Held in both Olbia and Alghero on the west coast, it has maintained its ‘European safari style’. This year’s Rally Italia is a meaningful year as it marks the 20th anniversary of the WRC in Sardegna. In honor of this, various events have been prepared in Piazza Crispi, Olbia.
Hyundai Motorsport again entered Thierry Neuville, Esapekka Lappi and Dani Sordo. Hyundai has yet to win the championship among the three teams. Moreover, Neuville fell behind the top 5 with disappointing results (33rd, 5th) in the last two races; Now he is desperate for his first win of the season. “It was very difficult in Portugal,” Neuville said before the game. “I chose a different setting than Sordo and Lappi’s, which I think is one of the reasons I struggled with traction and balance. I’m hoping that switching back to a setting similar to them will help improve performance.”
The fact that the starting order according to the championship standings is 5th is also an advantage at the beginning of the game. Sordo has shown a particularly strong performance in Sardegna, consistently standing on the podium for the past two years, including victories in 2019 and 2020. Lappi went from leading to retiring at the start of last year, and then came third in 2018. He’s been doing great this year with back-to-back podiums in Croatia and Portugal, so he’ll have to avoid making mistakes to secure his first win of the season.
There have been major changes to the Hyundai organization; François-Xavier Demaison became Hyundai’s new Technical Director. Demaison, a French engineer who has contributed to numerous victories and championship titles at Subaru, Peugeot and Volkswagen, recently returned to the WRC through Hyundai after working for the F1 Williams Racing Team. Upon his arrival, Christian Loriaux, who was a Technical Advisor, was transferred to WRC Program Manager. Demaison prioritizes improving competitiveness in Rally 1, and plans to demonstrate his abilities in various customer racing programs such as Rally 2 and TCR in the future.
Part-time driver Sébastien Ogier returned to Toyota, while Kalle Rovanperä and Elfyn Evans earned championship points. Takamoto Katsuta aims to gain experience, and defending champion Rovanpera seems to have few weaknesses, but his performance in Italy was relatively weak. On the other hand, veteran Ogier holds the all-time record for most wins, tying with Sébastien Loeb with four victories. Again, only two drivers, Ott Tänak and Pierre-Louis Loubet, joined for the M-Sport Ford. Tanak won the first WRC of his career in 2017 and also won last year with Hyundai.
In addition to the rough gravel roads that wind through the mountains on the northern part of the island, high temperatures in early summer plague the cars, tires and participants. In addition, there are rocks hidden in the bushes at the edge of the road, so thorough pace note-taking is very important. This is most notorious in the WRC European rounds. However, there was rain in the forecast this year. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, there are no service hours for vehicle maintenance and setting, so the tires to be used must be determined the evening before; It’s a big risk for both the team and the drivers when no one knows how the weather will change overnight. It was for cost reduction, but most of the participants were not happy with the FIA’s measures.
Shakedown testing began on the 2.87km-long course at Loiri Porto San Paolo on Thursday. Many drivers struggled on rougher road surfaces than in the preliminary stage; In addition, the rain made the race more difficult. The fastest in the test was the Lappi from Hyundai. “There would be easier parts and harder parts, but certainly the weather will be the key this weekend. And as always, the podium is our goal,” he said. Neuville was second, followed by Ogier and Loubet, and Sordo was fifth. At 6:05 that evening, the race started on the special stage SS1 of Olbia-Cabbu Abbas, a 3.20km-long mix of paved and unpaved roads. And Hyundai’s Lappi took the overall lead with a top time.
On Friday 2 June, the race will start from the new 10.71km-long Tantariles, through Terranova (8.41km), which is often included in the Sardegna rally, to Monte Lerno-Saconcheda. Conchedda) on the long-distance stage. This course was repeated in the morning and afternoon. The longest stage, Monte Lerno-Sa Conchedda, was extended this year to 49.92km-long. There are only 6 stages (SS2~SS7), but the total length is 138.04km, which is the longest. This is where Micky’s jump, which symbolizes the Sardegna rally, is located. The forecast was not wrong, and it rained quite a bit. At first the floor was moistened and dust was reduced, but soon ditches and mudpools were created.
Ogier won the opening SS2, and Lappi marked the top time in SS3, and the two drivers competed fiercely. In the long SS4, Ogier again took the lead, clearing his rivals by more than 12 seconds. Now the time difference with Lappi is 16.3 seconds. With hard tires on the front wheels, Sordo’s car skidded and rolled around the corner, losing more than three minutes. Lappi tried to strike back on SS5 Tantariles. After reducing the time difference to 8.7 seconds, he defeated Ogier by 0.1 second on the last stage and returned to the overall lead. Compared to Ogier who ran with 3 softs and 3 hards, he chose 4 softs and 1 hard, and his tire strategy was right.
There is a risk of having only one spare tire, but it was for light weight. At the end of Friday, Lappi was in the lead. Ogier was second by 0.1 second, and Neuville was third. Neuville is 27 seconds behind 4th placed Rovanpera, despite occasional problems with the handbrake. Katsuta, Evans, and Tanak were fifth through seventh; WRC2’s Sami Pajar, Adrian Faurmaux, and Emil Lindholm were in the scoring position. Following Sordo, Loubet also suffered significant damage to its car. Although his car was able to move, he was given a three-minute penalty for arriving late at time control.
On Saturday 3rd June the racers started the day further south inland on the 16.28km-long SS8 Coiluna-Loelle. They had a hard time because of the completely different road conditions from when writing the pace notes. Neuville won the opening stage, but Ogier was second fastest to take the lead again. Afterwards, in SS9, Lappi again pushed Ogier by 0.3 seconds while Neuville posted a second consecutive top time. In contrast to Ogier and Lappi’s bloody battle for the lead, many drivers retired. In SS8, Katsuta crossed a creek and stopped due to water entering the engine. In SS9, Tanak also retired while crossing a stream. As Loubet’s car did not restart after Friday’s crash, M-Sport Ford completely disappeared from the scoring zone. But this wasn’t the end of the story. On the SS10 Erula, Evans suddenly slowed down after crossing a creek and lost nearly two minutes before going into electric mode.
Ogier finished the morning in the lead, but Lappi and Neuville quickly followed him. Lappi’s flat tire widened the gap, but the gap between the lead and Neuville in third was only 24.7 seconds. Neuville tried to win by taking three stages (SS8, SS9, SS11) in the morning alone. Sordo, who fell to 12th after yesterday’s retirement, bounced back on Saturday and quickly moved up to 6th. SS12 was a repeat of Coiluna-Loelle. Lappi closed the gap with Ogier again. Ogier couldn’t help but be cautious whenever crossing a creek gulped his two Toyota Yaris. In the heavy rain of SS13, the gap between leaders Ogier and Lappi was only 4.3 seconds, and the gap with Neuville narrowed to 7.4 seconds.
Then, on SS14, Ogier suffered a tragedy; Right before the start, he found a flat rear tire and everything looked good until he quickly replaced it. But then a mistake occurred when he stepped on the brake pedal because of the mud full of the soles of his shoes. Ogier’s Yaris came to a halt as it strayed off course into the woods by the roadside. At SS14, Neuville jumped to the overall lead. Neuville also won Saturday’s final SS15, opening his gap to Lappi to 36.4 seconds. Rovanpera placed 3rd overall, and if there were no major mistakes, Hyundai’s one-two finish was likely due to a gap of more than 1 minute. A safe choice is highly likely, but considering the driver’s championship title, it’s hard to give up the power stage. Evans moved up to 4th overall and Sordo to 5th, and in WRC2 Fourmaux led Mikkelsen by more than 25 seconds.
The racers left Olbia early on the morning of Sunday, June 4, and set off for the north of the island. It is to hold the final race in the 46.02km-long SS16~SS19, where two stages are repeated. On this day, it also rained occasionally, and since the race section was relatively short, all Rally 1 players chose only soft tires. However, Hyundai’s three drivers carried two spare tires in case of an emergency, while their retired friends (Tanak, Katsuta, Evans, and Ogier), who had nothing to lose, carried only one. 3rd placed Rovanpera also competed with only one spare in order to lose some weight. He was more than a minute away from Lappi in second place, so it would be difficult to change his place, but the strategy was to take 5 points by all means in the power stage.
Tanak was fastest on the 15.22km opening stage (SS16), but Hyundai’s Neuville and Lappi maintained the top two in the overall standings. Tanak, Ogier, and Katsuta who returned from retirement didn’t have to be careful, and in fact, Tanak took top times in SS16 and SS17, and Katsuta took top times in SS18. On the other hand, the three podium candidates minimized the risk with a rather stable pace. Now, only SS19, which serves as the final stage and power stage, is left. Sordo, who was fifth, decided to retire due to exhaust issues; His car was able to run, but there was a possibility of a fire while driving.
Neuville won the trophy at the Rally Italia. Neuville and Lappi performed well on the final stage, finishing with a one-two finish for themselves and their team’s first win of the season. With this, Hyundai has earned a total of six championships in Italy (2016, 2018-2020, and 2022-2023). Neuville did not really do well in the early stages, but he steadily picked up the pace, and a chaotic heavy rain gave him a chance. And on Saturday afternoon when Ogier retired, he took the lead. Lappi finished second and Rovanpera finished last on the podium. Rally 1 drivers within scoring range were up to 4th place Evans, and from 5th to 10th place were all WRC2 racers. Mikkelsen took the class win over Fourmaux.
On Olbia’s beautiful Molo Brin coast, traditionally rally winners jump into the sea, but this year Neuville couldn’t; Unfortunately, it is banned for safety reasons. With this win, Neuville jumped to second behind Rovanpera in championship points. The score difference between the two, which was 30 points, is now 25 points. Hyundai, which succeeded in earning a lot of team points, narrowed the gap with the leading Toyota team from 32 points to 23 points and maintained second place in the manufacturer rankings.
Round 7, the second half of the season, now goes south over the Mediterranean. The Safari Rally, which takes place in Kenya, East Africa, from June 22 to 25, as its name suggests, takes place in the vast African wilderness. It is a rally from hell, where the fine sand called fesh-fesh eats up rally cars like quicksand, and the sweltering heat and unpredictable environment frustrate many drivers.
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.
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