Thierry Neuville slashed the gap to Sebastien Ogier during Saturday morning’s loop of stages on Rally Italia Sardegna and the Belgian is now just 4.9 seconds behind his World Rally Championship rival. Jari-Matti Latvala continues to hold third but is in a close battle with teammate Esapekka Lappi for the position.
Today’s route is the longest of the event and takes in two identical loops of three stages split by a shortened Ittiri test following the mid-leg service. After the rain and treacherous conditions yesterday, more typical Sardinian sunshine greeted the crews this morning and while the roads remained damp, grip has been good and the stages more akin to what is expected on this Mediterranean summer event.
Ogier started the day with an impressive 18.9-second advantage and dropped a second to Neuville in the opener. The Frenchman bounced back in the second stage, taking the win, but Neuville’s pace through the final stage in the loop saw the Belgian reel in over 14 seconds, moving him to within 4.9 seconds of the lead after winning the stage.
Latvala and Lappi were fighting hard this morning — 4.4 seconds split the Finns going into the day but within the first stage, Lappi had closed it to just nine-tenths of a second. Both Toyota drivers are mindful of loose rocks on the road, however, and are mixing speed with caution. Going into the mid-leg service there are seven seconds between them, Latvala holding the advantage.
Hayden Paddon and Mads Ostberg were also dicing for position, the Kiwi driver ultimately moving into fifth in the final stage of the loop. Ostberg had a good feeling early morning but then struggled with understeer and felt he couldn’t push with a lack of grip. Paddon is however really enjoying the conditions and sits 4.9 seconds ahead at Saturday’s midpoint. Craig Breen, seventh, had a heavy impact and felt something strange with a damper, but otherwise the Irishman has completed the morning unscathed.
Jan Kopecky now heads the FIA WRC 2 Championship category after Stephane Lefebvre was forced out with suspension damage. The Czech Skoda driver has over two and a half minutes in hand to Frenchman Nicolas Ciamin in the Hyundai i20 R5. They hold eighth and 10th respectively, such has been the rate of attrition at the front of the field, and sandwich WRC returnee Martin Prokop.
Ott Tanak, returning under Rally 2 regulations, has run without problems this morning and holds 11th overall with a stage win to his name, while Teemu Suninen, who retired yesterday after going off the road, dropped more time stopping to change a puncture after hitting a bank and spinning. He is 19th and just ahead of teammate Elfyn Evans. Andreas Mikkelsen also restarted, the Norwegian with a spin in the final stage of the loop.
After service, crews head out to the short Ittiri stage en route back to a re-run of this morning’s loop of long stages, all of which are likely to be rougher for the second passage.