Warming up for Safari Rally
Thierry Neuville is determined to revive his FIA World Rally Championship title ambitions at Rally Italia Sardegna that started yesterday and ends on Sunday as his Hyundai Motorsport team sets its sights on securing its first victory of the season.
Neuville began his campaign with an impressive string of podium finishes but currently finds himself fifth in the championship after disappointing results in the past two rallies. Rally Italia Sardegna - an event he has won on two occasions - presents an opportunity for him to turn his fortunes around.
Victory for team-mate Dani Sordo in 2019 and 2020 as well as former Hyundai man Ott Tänak in 2022 means the Korean manufacturer has won four of the last five Sardinia fixtures. Neuville is in high spirits, buoyed by a new approach to the set-up of his i20 N since the previous round.
“Portugal was a tough event for us,” acknowledged Neuville, who is joined in the three-car team by Sordo and Esapekka Lappi. “I had a different set-up from Dani and Esapekka, which we think is one of the reasons why I was struggling with traction and car balance.
“Switching my car to similar settings to those of my team-mates should be beneficial in the quest for improved performance and I’m looking forward to putting this to the test.”
He is fifth in the start order for Friday’s opening leg. In dry conditions, that offers a significant advantage over the early runners, who sweep gravel from the surface to leave a cleaner line and more grip for those coming behind.
That challenge is the biggest facing Toyota Gazoo Racing, for whom world champion Kalle Rovanperä and team part-timer Sébastien Ogier lie first and third in the championship in their GR Yaris cars. Victory would see Frenchman Ogier top the event’s roll of honour, taking his total to five.
“We are excited to see how we perform,” said team principal Jari-Matti Latvala. “Kalle could pay a big penalty for needing to open the road on this event, but we will have Sébastien and Elfyn [Evans] in better positions and hopefully they have the opportunity to challenge for victory.”
Elfyn Evans drives Toyota’s third car. He and team-mate Takamoto Katsuta, who will not score manufacturers’ championship points this week, must both bounce back from retirements in Portugal.
Ott Tänak’s confidence has been growing with every mile in his M-Sport Ford Puma and the Estonian will be eager to give the car its first gravel rally triumph. Winner here last year and currently second in the points, Tänak is joined in the team by young Frenchman Pierre-Louis Loubet. Known for its demanding nature, Rally Italia Sardegna is based in the island’s east coast town of Olbia and is regarded as one of the toughest events on the WRC calendar.
Tracks that become increasingly rocky and abrasive in the second pass of special stages make it a punishing encounter for cars and tyres while double runs of the famous Monte Lerno test, which measures a whopping 49.90km in length, add to the challenge on Friday.
After Thursday evening’s start, competitors face 19 stages totalling 320.88km before the finish on Sunday afternoon.