Ott Tanak is nearing his and Hyundai’s first victory in the all-new hybrid era of the FIA World Rally Championship after abandoning his rivals on Saturday’s penultimate stage of Rally Italy-Sardinia.
The Estonian’s i20 N Rally1 will start Sunday’s final stage a manageable 46-second lead over M-Sport Ford’s Craig Breen after pulling away from Friday’s leader Esapekka Lappi on a short and disastrous day.
The stage was set for a thrilling battle after Lappi’s Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 led Tanak by just 0.7 seconds overnight, but the Finn retired on Saturday’s opening stage at Tempio Pausania when his car suffered severe compression was thrown on a rock that ripped off the left rear wheel.
Lappi’s exit left Tanak clearly in the lead and while he insisted he wasn’t pushing, the stage times suggested otherwise as the Hyundai ace won six of the day’s seven stages.
While his WRC title hopes may be slim after a poor start to the season, a win here would mean a lot for 2019 champion Tanak. He has not stood on the top step of the podium since last year’s Arctic Rally Finland, which took place a frustrating 461 days ago.
“It was a good day,” said Tanak. “We had a really good feeling in the car. The roads held up well in the afternoon and it was quite pleasant.
“On the first stage this morning, when Esapekka was still fighting, we pushed hard. After that I would say that we slowed down step by step, but the times still came. I think if you’re in the mood, that’s how it should be.
“But we’ve been in that position before and we know what it’s like. It’s not over until the finish line is crossed, so let’s say it’s better not to think about it yet.”
Breen was the only other rider to win a stage on a hot and dusty day. The Irishman started third in his Puma Rally 1 before securing second place when his M-Sport Ford teammate Pierre-Louis Loubet suffered a puncture in the opening test.
Breen was pressured by Hyundai’s Dani Sordo in the morning but managed to build a comfortable buffer as the Spaniard struggled for pace later in the day. At the end of the day, 20.8 seconds separated the pair.
Loubet delivered a mature ride to bring his Puma to a halt in fourth overnight. He was 25.0 seconds behind Sordo but had a 51.4 second buffer over fifth-placed Kalle Rovanpera, who started the day eighth after being the first car on the road on Friday – a position that left him as an involuntary sweeper for the following cars.
Rovanpera put his GR Yaris in the top five late in the day when Adrien Fourmaux crashed his Ford in the final explosion of Monte Lerno Di Pattada and the stage was subsequently red flagged. Although Rovanpera comes to Sardinia with the chance of four straight WRC wins, the points Rovanpera would earn for fifth place plus any bonus points he can earn from Sunday’s Wolf Power Stage will put the Finn far in the standings hold in front.
Toyota development driver Takamoto Katsuta was almost four minutes behind the leaders. With no mid-leg impact, the Japanese rider was forced to tread carefully while tending a weakened radiator that took a hit from the spray on the Coiluna-Loelle stage.
Gus Greensmith completed the ongoing Rally1 entries, his Puma finished seventh but was 1:11.0s behind Katsuta.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville was targeting a climb up the rankings after finishing ninth on Friday following gearbox problems. The Belgian’s luck ran out on the third stage of the morning, however, when a rollover sidelined him for the day.
In WRC2, the second division of international rallying, reigning champion Andreas Mikkelsen retired from a second consecutive rally due to engine problems, opening the door for Toksport teammate Nikolay Gryazin to take the class lead and close the day in eighth place overall break up.
Mikkelsen’s Skoda Fabia Evo came to a halt on the Erula-Tula 2 stage, the final test of the morning. His exit allowed second-placed Gryazin to build a comfortable 44.9-second lead over Spaniard Jan Solans by the end of Saturday’s stage.
Crews will set out along the coast north of Alghero on Sunday to tackle the Monte Baranta (9.02 miles) and Sassari-Argentiera (4.41 miles) tests. Both stages will be run twice on the final day, with the latter being the venue for the bonus points paying Power Stage.
As has become a tradition at the Rally Italy Sardinia, whoever emerges first from the final stage dives into the port of Alghero with his entire team. If things stay as they are on the sharp end, let’s hope Ott Tanak has honed his diving skills…
WRC Rally Italy Sardinia, leading positions after day two, SS17
1 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 2h43m35.6s
2 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +46.0s
3 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +1m 06.8s
4 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Vincent Landais (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1:31.8 minutes
5 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2:23.2 minutes
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +3:52.3 minutes
7 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +5m03.3s
8 Nikolay Gryazin/Kostantin Aleksandrov (Skoda Fabio Evo – WRC2 leader) +6:09.2 minutes
9 Jan Solans/Rodrigo Sanjuan (Citroen C3 – WRC2) +6:54.1 minutes
10 Chris Ingram/Craig Drew (Skoda Fabio Evo – WRC2) +7m 09.4s
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