Neuville on course as Ogier crashes

Thierry Neuville is on target to score Hyundai’s first win of 2023. Photo: XPB Images

Thierry Neuville is four stages and 46.02 timed kilometres away from his and Hyundai’s first victory of the World Rally Championship season after a day of drama in the Sardinian sun and rain.

Neuville, third after Friday’s action, closed to within 13.5s of Sebastien Ogier following back-to-back stage wins this morning. But Ogier, who’d turned a 0.1s overnight deficit to Esapekka Lappi into a 1.7s lead on Saturday’s first stage only to drop back to second by 0.3s on the very next run, shot 12.7s clear of his pursuers, led by Lappi, with a rapid pass through the 21.92-kilometre Erula – Tula test.

The eight-time world champion then grew that margin to 18.2s on the final stage of the loop, only for a troubled SS12, a repeat of the day-opening Coiluna-Loelle test, to give his rivals hope.

Ogier’s factory Toyota Yaris had struggled out of a watersplash near the stage finish as Lappi went fastest to close to within 10.5s of his rival. And with Ogier in trouble again after another water crossing on the rain-hit SS13, Lappi was now 4.3s behind with stage winner Neuville just 3.1s down on his Hyundai team-mate.

Yet worse was to come for Ogier when he understeered off on a left-hander and slid down an embankment 1.4 kilometres from the start of SS14. While a Sunday morning restart and a push for Power Stage points is expected, hopes of a fifth win in Sardinia are over for Ogier.

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Aware of Ogier’s plight and equally of the need to keep his Hyundai on the road in the worsening conditions, Lappi dropped his pace considerably to the extent a determined Neuville now led by 23.8s. With this team leader in front and in the clear, Lappi went for even more caution on SS15 to complete leg two 36.4s adrift of Neuville in second to set up a Hyundai one-two.

“I am relieved to be at the finish,” said Neuville, absent from the top of the WRC podium since Japan’s 2022 season finale. “It was a tough day, but the feeling was getting better and better with the car. We learned a lot, that’s important, but it’s still not always perfect yet and we can still improve. Tomorrow is a short but tricky day. We need to have a clever drive through and try to bring home the one-two for the team.”

Hampered by excessive tyre wear and minor suspension damage, world champion Kalle Rovanpera completed leg one 1m50.7s behind Neuville with Elfyn Evans fourth and Dani Sordo back up to fifth despite rolling on Friday morning. Having suffered myriad delays during a trying day, Evans is 51.4s ahead of Sordo heading into Sunday’s final leg.

Like Evans, Ott Tanak and Takamoto Katsuta were both caught out on water crossings. However, Tanak retired his Ford Puma with a faulty electrical sensor, while a damaged radiator led to Katsuta’s early exit.

With Pierre-Louis Loubet not restarting this morning due to damage, Adrien Fourmaux completes the top six and leads WRC2 with Andreas Mikkelsen and Teemu Suninen next up followed by Emil Lindholm and Kajetan Kajetanowicz.

Sunday’s double-use stages are located north of host town Olbia and make up a total of 46.02 timed kilometres. The 15.22-kilometre Arzachena – Braniatogghiu run is first followed by the 7.79-kilometre Sardegna, which will form the 50th Wolf Power Sag when it’s repeated from 12:15 CET/20:15 AEST.

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