Following the unforgiving roads of last month’s Portuguese Rally, the 2021 World Rally Championship moves to another tortuous event, the Rally Italia Sardegna, now back in its traditional June calendar slot, having run in the autumn last season.
The testing special stages are narrow, lined by trees, bushes, rocks and are fast, road surfaces are rough and abrasive and can prove to be very hard on both car and tyres. Running in June also introduces the strong possibility of high temperatures which will make the event even more arduous for man and machine.
The rally has a long history, first held in 1928 and run over mixed road surfaces, the event was based in Sanremo and known as the Rally of the Flowers, it became a round of the WRC in 1973. In 1981 the rally was won by French driver Michèle Mouton, the first and only woman to win a WRC event. In 2004 the rally moved to its current home, the Mediterranean island of Sardinia.
The fifth round of the 2021 WRC features a shakedown stage tomorrow in the Olbia region of north eastern Sardinia before crossing the island to Alghero, which will host the ceremonial start of the rally in the evening.
Friday will see the 57 entries start the first eight stages of the rally, once again in the north of the country, with a further eight stages on Saturday and then Sundays final four stages including the power stage. The 20 special stages cover 303.10 km of the rally’s 1 299.02 km total.
The entry list shows 58 but unfortunately Oliver Solberg has had to withdraw as he is quarantined in Portugal, due a member of the team having tested positive for Covid-19.
The teams retain the same crew line-ups as Portugal with the exception of the M-Sport Ford WRT. The team continues its young driver policy and moves Adrien Fourmaux (20 points) and co-driver Renaud Jamoul to the WRC2 Ford Fiesta for this event, his seat now filled by Teemu Suninen (9 points) with Mikko Markkula, the Finn finishing as runner-up in the WRC2 category in Portugal. It must have been a difficult decision following the Frenchman’s excellent sixth position on the Portuguese Rally.
After his fifth place in Portugal, Gus Greensmith (22 points) and Chris Patterson will be pushing hard to place the EcoBoost-powered Ford Fiesta WRC on the podium.
Unchanged from Rally de Portugal, the Hyundai Shell Modus WRT consists of Thierry Neuville (57 points) and Martijn Wydaeghe, Ott Tänak (45 points) with Martin Järveoja and Dani Sordo (29 points) and Borja Rozada. Every driver has reached the top step of the podium in Sardinia, Neuville in 2016 and 2018, Dani Sordo 2019 and 2020. Tanak took a single victory as part of the Ford team in 2017. An impressive and formidable line-up, this could well be the team to watch.
Toyota Gazoo Racing is the second unchanged team led by current driver’s championship leader Sebastien Ogier (79 points) with Julien Ingrassia in the hot seat, just two points behind it’s Welshman Elfyn Evans (77 points) and co-driver Scott Martin and finally Kalle Rovanpera (41 points) with Jonne Halttunen.
It will not be an easy Friday for the team as Ogier and Evans will be the first cars on the road and according to Team Principal Jari-Matti Latvala.
“This is usually one of the most difficult rallies in terms of road cleaning, especially now we are going back there in summer. But we fought back well from a difficult start in Portugal and again we will try to take as many points as we can in Sardinia. We know it will be a great challenge but that’s what rallying is all about.”
Two of the team’s drivers have reached the top step of the podium in this rally, Ogier in 2013, 2014 and 2015 driving for Volkswagen in the Polo R WRC and Rovanpera who took victory in 2019 in the WRC2 category. It is interesting that Toyota have never won on the island, the last victory in the Italian Rally was on the Sanremo event when Didier Auriol drove his Celica Turbo to victory in 1994.
With this much experience and success in the Hyundai and Toyota crews it should prove to be a real battle of the giants, with Neuville and Tanak keen to get back in the championship chase and appearing to have the quicker car.
This seems to be correct as Ogier was reported as saying, following the Portuguese round, the Yaris needs more speed for Italy, perhaps the new engine introduced there will find a little more power.
Maybe, but perhaps a little of the F1 sandbagging has spilled over into the WRC world!