Hyundai’s Ott Tanak ended his long search for another FIA World Rally Championship victory with a convincing win on Rally Italy Sardinia on Sunday.
The Estonian was on dominant form on the Mediterranean island’s rock-strewn roads, bringing his i20 N Rally1 car home 1m3.2s clear of M-Sport Ford driver Craig Breen and delivering Hyundai Motorsport its first victory of the WRC’s new hybrid era.
Tanak’s win on the 2022 WRC’s fifth round had been a long time coming. The last time he stood on the top step of the podium was at Arctic Rally Finland in 2021, a frustrating 462 days ago. Since then, the 2019 champ has struggled to find rally-winning form, mainly due to mechanical troubles.
In the heat and dust of Sardinia, Tanak was on the pace from the start and traded the lead with Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Esapekka Lappi on Friday’s opening leg. A transmission issue on that day’s final stage left him with only three-wheel drive, yet he trailed the Finn’s GR Yaris Rally1 by only 0.7s overnight.
The stage looked set for a thrilling battle over Saturday’s marathon leg, run without a midday service. Instead, the fight was over just six miles into the opening Tempio Pausania test when Lappi’s Yaris rebounded from a heavy compression and bounced into a rock, ripping off the left-rear wheel and suspension components.
Lappi’s exit left Tanak clear at the top and he went on to win six of Saturday’s seven speed tests, carrying a useful 46s advantage into the final leg despite insisting that he wasn’t pushing. He was then able to ease through the final four stages and claim a 15th career win.
“It’s been very challenging, especially since the beginning of this [hybrid] generation,” said Tanak. “We are definitely very happy, especially for the mechanics — they put in an incredible effort all of last year and the beginning of this year. This rally was not easy and they made a good job to keep the car going.
“We have made some good steps. In [the previous round in] Portugal, we were really struggling and actually we managed to improve. No doubt, if the confidence is there then we can do a good job. We just need to keep working.”
Second-placed Breen was delighted to grab his best-ever result for M-Sport Ford. The Irishman ended Friday just inside the top five following a spin and an overshoot, but moved his Puma Rally1 into second soon after when teammate Pierre-Louis Loubet punctured a left-front tire.
Breen came under pressure from Hyundai’s Dani Sordo before delivering a handful of top-three times on Saturday to extend the gap over the Spanish Sardinia specialist.
Sordo eventually completed the podium 29.8s behind. He’d struggled to find a comfortable setup early in the rally, but gradual improvements unlocked more pace from his i20 N Rally1, and a stall following a water splash on SS16 was his only real bump in the road.
Loubet brought his Puma home 36.4s behind Sordo to earn a WRC career-best result of fourth overall. The Frenchman adopted a mature approach following his Saturday puncture, showing pace when needed, but also comfortably managing the gap to Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera, who ended 53.4sec behind.
Rovanpera was the best finishing Toyota with fifth on what was a disappointing event for the team.
The 21-year-old Finn, who’d won the three rallies prior to Italy, had the dubious task of opening the road on Friday, courtesy of being the WRC points leader, and initially languished in eighth after struggling for traction on the loose and dusty surface. But an improved road position on Saturday helped him climb the order.
Rovanpera was able to leapfrog Toyota teammate Takamoto Katsuta, who finished sixth, as well as M-Sport Ford’s Adrien Fourmaux, who crashed out on SS17, and he now leads the WRC standings by a commanding 55 points, with a maximum of 30 available from each of the eight remaining events.
M-Sport Ford’s Gus Greensmith was seventh after a frustrating weekend. The Brit overshot a right-hander on Friday and dropped around two minutes while fumbling to get his Puma restarted. After that, he focused on bringing the car home and testing different setups.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville managed to salvage five points with the rally-closing Wolf Power Stage win after rolling out of contention on Saturday. Toyota ace Elfyn Evans also had a rally to forget after retiring on Friday and after restarting on Saturday, too.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Nikolay Gryazin clinched the victory with an error-free run through Sunday’s four stages.
The Skoda Fabia Rally2 Evo driver had moved into the lead on Saturday morning’s final test when Toksport teammate and reigning WRC2 champ Andreas Mikkelsen was forced to retire his Fabia with engine issues. By day’s end Gryazin had built a comfortable 44.9s lead over Jan Solans, and that gap enabled him to ease off on Sunday morning and focus on not making any errors. He eventually won by 28s, as well as finishing eighth overall.
Second was Solans best-ever WRC2 finish but it was a close-run thing, the Spaniard bringing his Citroen C3 to the finish just 5.1s clear of an epic battle behind him for third. M-Sport Ford’s Jari Huttunen edged that one, coming home 5.8s ahead of Chris Ingram in another Toksport-run Skoda.
The championship reaches its midpoint next month when it leaves Europe for the first time in 2022 with a visit to Africa for the legendary Safari Rally Kenya, June 23-26.
WRC Rally Italy Sardinia, final positions after Day Three, SS21
1 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 3h12m02.3s
2 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m03.2s
3 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +1m33.00s
4 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Vincent Landais (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +2m09.4s
5 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +3m02.8s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +4m02.6s
7 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +5m23.6s
8 Nikolay Gryazin/Kostantin Aleksandrov (Skoda Fabio Evo – WRC2 winner) +7m37.7s
9 Jan Solans/Rodrigo Sanjuan (Citroen C3 – WRC2) +8m05.7s
10 Jari Huttunen/Mikko Lukka (M-Sport Ford Fiesta Mk II – WRC2) +8m10.8s
WRC Drivers’ Championship after 5 rounds
1 Rovanpera 120 points
2 Thierry Neuville 65
3 Tanak 62
4 Breen 52
5 Katsuta 47
WRC Manufacturers’ Championship after 5 rounds
1 Toyota Gazoo Racing 200 points
2 Hyundai Motorsport 161
3 M-Sport Ford 120
4 TGR Next Generation 53
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