After a disappointing string of results going back to the latter part of the 2015 season, Thierry Neuville became the fifth different winner in the last five WRC events when he came home 24.8 seconds ahead of Jari-Matti Latvala after four days of racing in the 2016 Rally Italia Sardegna. The Belgian won nine of the 19 stages in his Hyundai i20.
Thierry Neuville on his way to victory in the 2016 Rally Italia Sardegna

Image by Janus Rea – Red Bull Content Pool

The rally started on Thursday evening with a short stage at the Ittiri Arena, a former autocross track just outside the village of the same name. FIA World Rally Championship leader Sébastien Ogier set the quickest time in the test, piloting his Volkswagen Polo R around the 2.0km course  three-tenths of a second quicker than Ott Tänak (Ford Focus RS) and Jari-Matti Latvala (Volkswagen Polo R).

Kevin Abbring (Hyundai i20) and Andreas Mikkelsen (Volkswagen Polo R) were tied for fourth place, 0.6 seconds off Ogier’s pace, with Hyundai team-mates Thierry Neuville and Hayden Paddon level in sixth.

Friday consisted of a morning loop of four stages which were repeated in the afternoon to give a total distance for the day of 102.86 km. Latvala won the opening test to take the overall lead but Ogier fought back on the next stage to reclaim the top spot.

After that it became the Neuville and Latvala show as the lead changed hands after almost every stage as the pair fought tooth and nail in intense heat. Neuville eventually eased ahead in late afternoon to eke out an 11.1sec advantage in his Hyundai i20 as Latvala fought handling issues.

Neuville scored points only twice in the opening five WRC rounds, but he and Latvala were aided by good grip on roads cleaned of slippery dry gravel by those ahead in the start order.

“I think everyone is happy to see us back in front,” said Neuville. “I was helped by the cleaner roads, it increased our confidence, and I hope we can continue in the same rhythm tomorrow. We had many issues at the end of last year and this year and it’s well-deserved.”

Latvala battled an understeering Volkswagen Polo R, but still won two stages compared to Neuville’s four.

“I can’t get out of the corners properly and the car is difficult to drive. It got worse in the afternoon. I couldn’t attack and the tyres were wearing,” he said.

Road opener Ogier gambled with soft compound Michelin tyres when temperatures were cooler this morning to try to improve grip on the slippery gravel. He held the leading duo in check but slipped back this afternoon to end 40.3sec off the lead.

Andreas Mikkelsen overhauled Mads Østberg in the final stage to grab fourth by 1.0sec in his Polo R, Østberg’s decision to carry two spare wheels this afternoon upsetting the balance of his Ford Fiesta RS. Dani Sordo completed the top six, a further 20.1sec behind.

Hayden Paddon rolled heavily down a hillside into retirement, Eric Camilli dropped several minutes with a broken rear differential and Kevin Abbring struggled all morning in two-wheel drive when the propshaft broke on his Hyundai i20 before the opening stage.

Jari-Matti Latvala on his way to second place in Rally Italia Sardegna

Image by Jaanus Ree / Red Bull Content Pool

Saturday’s marathon leg comprised more than half the rally’s distance. After a 05.30 start, the drivers tackled three stages near Budduso, which were repeated in the afternoon after service. The last test of each loop was the classic 44.26km Monte Lerno, featuring the spectacular Micky’s Jump.

Latvala reduced Neuville’s Friday night lead to less than three seconds in the morning loop as handling issues hindered the Hyundai i20 driver. But the Belgian won two of the afternoon’s three stages to rebuild his lead and end 16.1sec clear.
High temperatures, rocky gravel roads and heavy rain presented a tough challenge in a day which contained more than half the event’s distance and Neuville was up to it.

“The car was amazing to drive in slippery conditions,” he said. “We’ve had another good day and it was a pleasure to fight Jari-Matti. Tomorrow will be tough but we’ll prepare properly and continue fighting.”

An overnight gearbox change left Latvala more confident with his Volkswagen Polo R’s handling. After eating into Neuville’s lead he looked certain to move ahead but applauded his rival’s drive through the final marathon 44.26km Monte Lerno test.

“I can’t do better than that. I did a really good run and if Thierry is faster then respect to him. I was a bit too careful earlier this afternoon, but sometimes you have to play safe,” said Latvala.

Championship leader Sébastien Ogier was 58.9sec adrift of Latvala in third. As road opener he endured the worst of the conditions, cleaning the dry gravel off the surface to leave better grip for those behind.

Less than four seconds covered Ogier, Mads Østberg and Andreas Mikkelsen after the morning as the Norwegian duo closed on the struggling Frenchman. However, both Scandinavians retired in the afternoon to leave Ogier over a minute clear of Dani Sordo.

Mikkelsen was first to go, exiting fifth with a broken track control arm on his Polo R after hitting a rock. Then Østberg parked his Ford Fiesta RS near the finish of the final stage after clipping a rock and breaking the front right suspension.
Sordo survived a sticking throttle to head Ott Tänak by 2min 31.4sec. The Estonian had tyre problems in the high temperatures but showed his pace by winning the day’s second test.

Today’s final leg was the shortest, comprising just four stages and 40.26km north of Alghero. The final 6.07km test from Sassari to Argentiera formed the live TV Power Stage with bonus points to the fastest three drivers.

Neuville won two of the final four stages, pulling away from Latvala to take his first win of the season.

“My second time and there is much less pressure leading the rally,” he said. “We had a great weekend and great things come to those who go and earn it. The feeling was good in the car, hopefully it’ll be like this for the rest of the season. It wasn’t easy but we keep working and it’s good for the confidence.”

Latvala conceded defeat this morning when the gap rose towards 20sec.

Ogier extended his championship lead by finishing third in another Polo R. As road opener, he lost time sweeping the dry gravel and gambled with soft tyres on Friday and Saturday morning to achieve his target of a podium finish.

Dani Sordo claimed his fourth consecutive fourth place in an i20 to climb to second in the points standings. Ott Tänak and Eric Camilli, who claimed his maiden stage victory today, completed the top six in Ford Fiesta RS cars.

Mads Østberg failed to restart today after his team diagnosed a damaged engine following a broken driveshaft yesterday.

The season reaches its midpoint on the fast gravel roads of 73rd PZM Rally Poland (30 June – 3 July).