Belgian driver heads Hyundai 1-2 as Sébastien Ogier goes off the road on breathless Saturday.
Thierry Neuville sits on the brink of his first triumph in 2023 having taken control of Rally Italia Sardegna on a thrilling Saturday which saw the downfall of eight-time world champion Sébastien Ogier.
Neuville had trailed Ogier and Esapekka Lappi in third place since the start of this sixth round of the season – but a heavy downpour in the penultimate Erula – Tula test caused utter chaos and turned the rally on its head.
Ogier, hunting down a record fifth Italian win in a Toyota GR Yaris, entered the stage clinging onto a slender overall lead. However, in a stunning twist of fate, the Frenchman’s fortunes took a dramatic downturn when he understeered off the road, veering down an embankment just 1.4km after the start.
Lappi reduced his attack upon seeing Ogier’s stricken car, inadvertently dropping over half a minute to i20 N team-mate Neuville, who was unaware of the drama unfolding behind him on the road. The Belgian climbed from third to first overall as a result of his charge and heads the Hyundai 1-2 by 36.4sec approaching Sunday’s four-stage finale.
“I am relieved to be at the finish,” admitted Neuville, who has not won a rally since Japan last year. “It was a tough day out there but the feeling was getting better and better with the car. We learned a lot, that’s important, but it’s still not always perfect yet and we can still improve.
“Tomorrow is a short but tricky day,” he added. “We need to have a clever drive through and try to bring home the 1-2 for the team.”
Championship leader Kalle Rovanperä was elevated to third after his team-mate’s retirement, although the Finn is unlikely to be able to trouble the frontrunning pair on outright pace alone. He trailed Lappi by 1min 14.3sec at close of play after being hampered by excessive tyre wear in the afternoon.
Perseverance paid off for Elfyn Evans, whose day was filled with setbacks. The Welshman’s Toyota sustained radiator damage in a water crossing on SS10 and he leaked almost three minutes limping back to service.
History threatened to repeat itself later in the day when Evans’ car momentarily lost power while negotiating another water splash. The misfire cleared itself shortly afterwards and he reached the finish almost four minutes behind Rovanperä in fourth overall.
Ott Tänak and Takamoto Katsuta were not as lucky and both suffered water-induced retirements. A faulty electrical sensor was to blame for M-Sport Ford man Tänak’s demise while Katsuta bowed out with radiator damage.
Their respective disappointments enabled Dani Sordo, recovering from a Friday morning roll, to climb to fifth overall. He headed WRC2 leader Adrien Fourmaux while Andreas Mikkelsen, Teemu Suninen, Emil Lindholm and Kajetan Kajetanowicz – all contesting WRC2 – completed the leaderboard.
Leading positions after Saturday:
1. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N 3h 10m 36.9s
2. E Lappi / J Ferm FIN Hyundai i20 N +36.4s
3. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota GR Yaris +1m 50.7s
4. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris +5m 36.5s
5. D Sordo / C Carrera ESP Hyundai i20 N +6m 27.9s
6. A Fourmaux / A Coria FRA Ford Fiesta Rally2 +8m 11.7s