Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi delivered a near-perfect drive to round out Friday’s punishing opening leg of the WRC’s Rally Italy Sardinia with a miniscule overnight lead.
The Finn, making his gravel debut in a hybrid Toyota GR Yaris Rally1, won two of the six rock-strewn special stages to open a tiny 0.7s advantage over Hyundai’s Ott Tanak on a shortened first day of round five of the FIA World Rally Championship.
The final two stages were cancelled due to delays following an incident during the first pass of the Osilu-Tergu test.
Lappi started strongly and topped the timesheets after the second passage of Monti di Ala e Budduso, before being quickly overtaken by a charging Tanak at the end of the morning loop.
Tanak looked likely to pull clear in the afternoon loop until a transmission issue hampered the Hyundai i20 N driver on the final stage, dropping him back to second after he nursed the car to the finish with three-wheel drive.
The cancellations of SS8 and SS9 held a silver lining for the Estonian as he was able to return to the end-of-day Alghero service without losing any further time.
Meanwhile, Lappi’s day was relatively drama-free, a front-left puncture on the day’s fourth stage being the biggest of his worries.
“I’m not really trying to push more,” said Lappi, whose 2022 Toyota program covers the rallies when eight-time and reigning WRC champ Sebastien Ogier is competing in his debut WEC season. “I think we have had a sort of smart pace throughout the day, and I’m continuing to drive like that. I still have some margin to avoid rocks, but I believe everyone is doing the same.”
Pierre-Louis Loubet ended the leg 14.4s back from Tanak in third, best of the M-Sport Ford fleet. The Frenchman traded seconds with fellow Puma Rally1 pilot Craig Breen through the day, and both drivers dropped time with small overshoots. Heading to the overnight halt, Irishman Breen was just 0.4s in arrears.
Dani Sordo was only six tenths of a second further back in his Hyundai. The Spaniard struggled to find the optimum setup early on, but adjustments made throughout the day proved effective and he notched up a pair of stage wins.
M-Sport Ford’s Adrien Fourmaux was a lonely sixth, trailing Sordo by 14.7s, but ahead of Toyota development driver Takamoto Katsuta, who struggled for traction in his GR Yaris, by a useful 34.7s.
WRC points leader Kalle Rovanpera, who is bidding for a fourth straight event win, languished in eighth after sweeping the road all day in his Toyota. He was followed by a dejected Thierry Neuville, who dropped two minutes on the day’s fourth stage with a transmission issue in his Hyundai.
It was a bad day for British drivers. Elfyn Evans led briefly before retiring his Yaris with radiator damage after a heavy landing in a compression on the third stage, while Gus Greensmith ended 2m19.0s off the pace after struggling to restart his Puma following an overshoot in the morning.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, reigning champ Andreas Mikkelsen built a commanding lead after current championship leader Yohan Rossel crashed out.
Norwegian Mikkelsen made for a forlorn figure in the service park one year ago after rolling his Toksport Skoda Fabia Rally2 Evo. However, he’s now on track to make amends for that costly error after producing a flawless performance to build a 15.8s lead over Toksport teammate Nikolay Gryazin, who leads the WRC2 Junior ranks.
Rossel rolled his Citroen C3 just a quarter-mile into the 8.24-mile Sedini-Castelsardo stage, blocking the road and ending his hopes of picking up a third consecutive WRC2 win.
Saturday’s second leg features eight more stages near Monte Acuto, with 81.91 miles of action broken into two loops of four tests. Adding to the challenge for the crews, there will be no midday service halt, meaning avoiding any damage or technical issues on the rocky stages will be at even more of a premium.
WRC Rally Italy Sardinia, leading positions after Day One, SS7
1 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 1h10m41.9s
2 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +0.7s
3 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Vincent Landais (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +15.1s
4 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +15.5s
5 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +16.1s
6 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +30.8s
7 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m05.5s
8 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m13.1s
9 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +2m07.2s
10 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Skoda Fabio Evo – WRC2 leader) +2m20.8s
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