WRC: Rally Itaila Winners and Losers
Another Rally down and more drama in the book and yet we are still no closer to knowing the final results of the season. Who has come out on top.
1. Dani Sordo
First and foremost the biggest winner of Rally Italia Sardinia has to be the man who won the event, this is the second time the Spaniard has one the event in as many years and probably the most convincing win of his career. With last years victory being handed to him after Ott Tanak fell out of contention on the last stage and his only other win being Rally Deutschland in 2013 an event he won with every one of his rivals having issues which put them out of contention. Sardinia this year you could argue is the first Rally Sordo has won in pure pace alone, as he stayed on top spot from Friday afternoon all the way to Rally end on Sunday, it did perhaps get a little too close for comfort with his margin of victory being only 5.1 seconds thanks to not only Sordo backing off to stay out of trouble and partly because of the intensity of the battle for second behind. Dani Sordo has always been a top driver and this weekend only helps his case to secure a more permanent drive for next season, Hyundai this season has been masterful with the use of their second care in the constructors battle, they have had exactly the right driver in the car to score extra championship points on almost every Rally and since the break has achieved 2 podiums on every Rally so far this season. With Sebastien Loeb unlikely to take part in many events next season this gives Sordo an even bigger claim on more rounds in 2021 (with most gravel events being his speciality) but also the return of Catalunya next year will give him plenty of optimism for more success.
2. Thierry Neuville
In Sardinia, there was only one thing that Thierry Neuville could do, and that was push as hard as possible, he knew if he wanted to force himself back into the hunt for the championship he had to make the most of every chance he had, and being the last gravel round it was the last Tim he will have a favourable road position over his rivals. On paper, a second-place and 4 power stage points sound good, but it isn't a complete representation of what this means for his title bid, before the event you would put him down as a long shot thanks to all the misfortune and dropped points over the previous rounds. But after however, he seems to be in as strong a position as any, he is currently sitting 24 points behind championship leader Elfyn Evans which may seem a lot, though thanks to the news that Monza has been confirmed as the season finale there are now 2 rounds remaining rather than just the 1. Then consider that the next round Ypres Rally Belgium, Neuville's home event and more crucially an event where none of his championship rivals has any experience, since its inclusion it has been hallmarked as an event that he will win, in the same way, that Estonia was always going to be Tanak's Rally to lose. Monza as well is somewhere that the Belgian has an advantage as he has also competed there in the past so will have optimism if nothing else heading into the event, it seems like this weekend might be a turning point for Thierry as a weekend-long battle with nemesis Ogier that reminded us of 2017 and 2018 apart from one thing, it was Neuville who came out on top. Could this finally be his year to claim that elusive championship? He will certainly hope so.
3. Elfyn Evans
He may not have had the most headline stealing weekend, but it must be said Elfyn Evans had possibly the most important weekend of his career. Coming into the event with an 18 point championship lead, not knowing for certain how many rounds were remaining, there was one goal for the Welshman. Damage limitation. Being first on the road was always going to be tough and we saw that after Friday he was already out of the podium fight, it would have been very easy for Evans to lose his head trying to overdrive and claw back time which would likely end in disaster. Instead, he was once again calculated and showed great maturity to sit back and hold position and eventually when an opportunity came to make up a place on Suninen he was there to pounce and hold the Finn off. When you think about the amount of work Ogier had to put in to achieve his third place compared to Evans with fourth and only 1 less power stage point, it seems unbelievable that Ogier was only able to close the gap by 4 points, even more, significant is that it is also the last time the Frenchman will have an advantageous road position over him with the final two rounds both being on tarmac. Ypres is next and neither Evans nor Ogier have competed there yet you could say the former will have an advantage, as it's November start date means the likelihood of rain high and the Flanders event is already notoriously treacherous when it comes to roads getting slippy with the more cars that follow. That said both the Toyota drivers should be in a similar boat and I for one can't wait to see what happens next in the title battle.
1. Ott Tanak
Underwhelming. Perhaps the best word to describe this weekend for Ott Tanak's performance in Sardinia. Coming into the weekend you would say he had nothing to lose, well behind in the championship, a favourable road position on an event he loves. Things looked set to be a typical Tanak clinic where he put everyone to the sword and take everything on offer. However, that was not to be, the weekend couldn't have started much worse as after the first morning he was already just under two minutes off the overall lead of the Rally and was languishing down in eighth after Friday. Things did improve as the event went on, however, the damage had already been done and he only managed to make up two more positions, Loubet (who had a much needed solid run) on pure speed and Greensmith thanks to the Englishman's Ford developing an issue. The best thing that happened all weekend for the Estonian was picking up a crucial 5 power stage points at the end of Sunday. It's fair to say the title defence isn't quite going to plan and with the only two rallies left being events, he has never participated in and currently sitting 28 points of the championship lead it seems like a tall order to successfully retain his title, that being said if anyone could do it then it would be Ott Tanak.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the past weekend when talking about M-Sport Ford is a story of what might have been. Friday morning stage 1 and it's a Fiesta 1-2. It could not possibly have started better for the small team from Cumbria, an upset was looking on the cards, they had two drivers who are notoriously fond of this surface and the car seemed to be working the best it had all season. Then disaster, as quickly as they had gone to the top their fight for first was halved. Esapekka Lappi, out after his engine blew up and it was game over for the weekend and another problem to fix for the already struggling independent team. And then it was one, down to Teemu Suninen to fly the flag for the team and battle for victory, then with Friday morning over you wouldn't have bet against him. A less surprising but still impressive Friday afternoon left the Finn in second overnight and still very much in the fight. The Saturday happened and things slightly fell apart, quickly he was swallowed by the hard-charging Ogier and Neuville, and before you knew it he was also behind the steady Evans. We later found out that he was suffering from a handbrake problem which certainly made his driving look dramatic if not fast, thankfully this is as far as he would fall but fifth can't be seen as a positive for the team. Especially when you consider his teammates Lappi and Greensmith both fell victim to technical issues throughout the weekend, reducing the teams chance to score even further. It hasn't been a good season so far for them, but hopefully with two tarmac rounds left the car will suit the surface better and they can end the season on a high.
3. Takamoto Katsuta
The return of the WRC has been brilliant for everybody, everybody apart from Takamoto Katsuta that is. The Japanese driver has competed in two events yet has found himself in 3 Rally ending crashes, Estonia was looking to be the event where he showed the world what he could do, running comfortably amongst some of the best in the world looking to take the best result of his career so far with fifth until he ended upside down in an Estonian ditch. Then after giving Turkey a miss he returned to Sardinia and had an incident on Friday the totalled the car in a big accident on Sunday morning, this tainted what otherwise would have been considered a successful event as he showed glimpses of promise all weekend long yet nothing too stand out. At present Katsuta is set to compete in Ypres but isn't certain he will actually be there due to a lack spare parts available after not only his but also teammate Kalle Rovanpera's two accidents this weekend. Hopefully, he is included to go to Belgium as I don't feel we've seen the best from Taka since the return and he more than deserves to be in the car, of course, he does have one huge advantage going for him, the fact he is the best Japanese prospect in years and he drives for Toyota.