5 big takeaways from Rally Italia Sardinia

It looked for all the world as if Sebastien Ogier was going to pull off a third straight World Rally Championship victory at Rally Italy Sardinia, but a dramatic final stage twist left Ott Tanak as the winner by just 0.2 seconds!

A slow puncture for Ogier gave the charging Tanak an unexpected gift he was only too happy to receive – undoing the heartache of that same Power Stage five years ago when jammed steering robbed him of a certain win.

From rough roads, a decimated WRC2 field, the championship leader’s first big mistake and his rival’s crumbling challenge, round six of the 2024 season provided plenty of other talking points.

Here are the five big takeaways from a WRC weekend we’ll never get:

Title race blown wide open again

With so many routes to claiming good championship points this year, mistakes are where the season could be won or lost. So as one Hyundai driver hurt his own cause, he handed his team-mate a lifeline too.

As Saturday morning kicked off, Thierry Neuville was, once again, performing wonders at the controls of his Hyundai i20 N Rally1.

Immediately disposing of Takamoto Katsuta and team-mate Dani Sordo, Neuville climbed to third and, just like in Portugal, was on course to expertly mitigate the damage from his Friday road cleaning – which was even more pronounced in Sardinia.

For him to throw it all away by losing concentration and slipping off the road backwards down a bank on SS8 was actually best summarised by Sordo’s comments at the end of the stage.

“I see Thierry and I was really disappointed, f***ing hell. Honestly… I don’t know why he needs to take this amount of risks,” Sordo said. “Yeah, very tricky stage but after this I was thinking too much and I was sad honestly.”

Neuville was setting some super impressive stage times on Saturday – the only one to match the two out front: Ogier and Ott Tanak. But with over half a minute to make up to them, and with title rival Elfyn Evans several places back enduring a dismal rally, would the Belgian have been better off reducing his speed somewhat and just banking the 13 points he’d have been awarded for third on Saturday?

The new points system allowed Neuville to escape Sardinia with 12 points (claiming all 12 of Sunday’s), but instead of heading home with a protected championship lead, his advantage has now been reduced to 18 points (now over both Tanak and Evans) after making the type of mistake that many believe has cost Neuville world championship glory in the past.

Evans is slipping out of contention

Neuville’s pain wasn’t really Elfyn Evans’ gain though, as the Toyota driver just never really got going in Sardinia.

After watching his championship deficit mushroom to 24 points in Portugal, what the Welshman really didn’t need was another difficult weekend in Italy – but, worryingly, that’s exactly what he experienced.

He was disadvantaged by a slow puncture on the very first stage, but never had any sort of strong pace that made him look like a contender for the top positions.

Fourth position overall was far from disastrous, and in another championship season would have been looked upon as stronger, but Neuville’s mistake was prime real estate for his championship contenders to capitalise.

Tanak pounced, but Evans just wasn’t there to fully pick up the pieces. With a points structure that rewards raw speed over consistency, Evans will need to arrest his pace deficit soon if he’s to remain in the title fight. 

Fourmaux’s good run has ended

By law of averages, it had to happen at some point. Adrien Fourmaux bumped back down to earth in Sardinia.

As he has done all-year long, Fourmaux was punching above his weight through the early phases – running third despite a less-than-ideal start position of fourth. But the third special stage would mark the starting point of his spiralling weekend when a puncture dumped him to sixth. Rolling into the stage-end, Fourmaux sighed: “It’s gonna be a long rally.”

Prophetic words, indeed. On the very next stage, Fourmaux’s Puma Rally1 ground to a halt with technical trouble. That consigned him to running first on the road through Saturday, and then the loss of front brakes stunted his pace further.

The sweetener would’ve been some handy points from ‘Super Sunday’, but sliding off one of the day’s first corners after missing a pacenote – coupled with the dust issues that hampered all those bar Neuville – didn’t bode well for a huge bonus points haul either. A weekend Fourmaux will be keen to forget, but at least it all went wrong on a rally that was already ruined. 

WRC2 title contenders become clearer

Labelling Sardinia as a must-win for Sami Pajari would’ve been a touch hyperbolic, but with Gus Greensmith absent, Oliver Solberg not scoring and then absent anyway for medical reasons, this was a golden opportunity for the Toyota pilot to really get his WRC2 campaign up and running.

He took it.

Aside from SS2 where Pierre-Louis Loubet’s Skoda slipped into the lead, Pajari was dominant – managing his pace perfectly and staying out of trouble to deliver his first WRC2 win where he was also the fastest Rally2 competitor. 

Yohan Rossel recovered brilliantly from a puncture to fight his way up to second to underline his championship credentials – defying the notion that he and the Citroen C3 Rally2 are only competitive on asphalt – while Jan Solans can’t be discounted either, backing up his Portugal win with third in Sardinia.

Things are looking far less promising for two Rally1 refugees though. Loubet and Suninen both crashed out of Portugal, and both retired from Sardinia with mechanical woes.

Sprint itinerary can work, but needs tweaks

While still beginning on Friday and concluding at Sunday lunchtime, Sardinia trialed something new this year with a sprint itinerary – scheduling all of the competitive action within a 48-hour period. 

There’s been plenty of debate regarding the proposed technical regulations for 2025, but there’s been universal agreement that event organisers should have more freedom to individualise their itineraries going forward.

Sardinia was effectively a live practice run at a sprint format, and there were some definite positives to be found. Shakedown moving to Friday and the rally beginning in the afternoon meant recce began a day later, and gave everyone an extra day at home.  

What perhaps wasn’t so ideal was the scheduling, and specifically the lack of any service breaks. Takamoto Katsuta certainly felt his transmission issue would’ve been solved had there been a service on Saturday rather than just a remote tire fitting zone.

Most likely in 2025 there would be, with remote servicing on the agenda for a return. 

The feeling within the service park seems to be that the sprint format can work, but there are things to improve. You don’t learn though if you don’t try, so all round Sardinia’s itinerary was a useful experiment. 

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Luke Barry

Luke Barry is an award-winning rally journalist, with several years experience at leading outlets including DirtFish. Currently freelance, he is growing his portfolio across all areas of rallying. Email: luke.barry1997@gmail.com
Luke Barry is an award-winning rally journalist, with several years experience at leading outlets including DirtFish. Currently freelance, he is growing his portfolio across all areas of rallying. Email: luke.barry1997@gmail.com