Neuville holds on to reign in Sardinia

Thierry Neuville has taken the first win for Hyundai in 2023 – and under chief Cyril Abiteboul – in Italy. Photo: XPB Images

Thierry Neuville’s wait for a 2023 World Rally Championship victory is over after he survived the rain to win Rally Italia Sardegna for a third time, a result that fires him back into title contention.

With the Belgian’s Hyundai team-mate Esepekka Lappi 36.4s adrift and under firm orders not to attack, Neuville’s route top spot was largely guaranteed, providing he could steer clear of trouble over Sunday’s four-stage, 46.02-kilometre route.

Although heavy rain made for a treacherous Power Stage finale, Neuville made it to the end unscathed to seal victory by 33.0s ahead of Lappi with world champion Kalle Rovanpera in third overall.

“It has been a tough, challenging weekend,” said the 34-year-old, whose last WRC victory was in Japan in November 2022.

“We have been involved from the beginning in a tough fight with some highs and lows the whole weekend, but always able to fight back due to a good attack, a better feeling in the car and quite a good tyre strategy.

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“At the end somehow the strategy paid off by putting on the pressure on [Sebastien] Ogier who made a mistake and that gave us then a good opportunity for us and for the team to secure a double podium.”

Neuville, who dedicated his victory to his fallen team-mate Craig Breen, climbed from fifth to second in the title chase, albeit 25 points behind Rovanpera after the Finn scored five bonus points with the fastest Power Stage run after a morning of tyre saving and limited action.

On an event hit by unseasonal wet weather, a total of nine lead changes were registered. And while Neuville’s cause was eased when Ogier crashed out on Saturday’s penultimate stage, Neuville barely faltered in his factory Hyundai.

“I knew that my tyres were very bad for the last stage so it was very stressful at the end and so the target was just to get through,” said Neuville.

“We knew as well that Kalle was going for the five points anyhow and even if I would have taken all the risks, I would have taken maybe one point maximum and I think even not so we had a quite good approach, we brought it to the finish.”

Lappi’s podium was his third in succession but it could have been the top step had it not been for time dropped on SS14 – and for the requirement to cede position to team leader Neuville.

Like his rivals, Lappi had to make do with 12 soft-compound tyres for the entire rally after the tyre nomination had been made with warm and dry conditions in mind.

“You don’t do a rally with twelve tyres normally, okay we used 14 with the two hards, but I mean if you tell someone you do Rally Sardinia with 12 soft tyres, they are not gonna believe you,” said Lappi.

Dani Sordo should have made it three Hyundais in the top five in fifth place behind Elfyn Evans but an exhaust failure meant game over for the Spaniard before Sunday’s third stage had begun.

Adrien Fourmaux was on course for a giant-killing fifth overall in his WRC2-spec Ford Fiesta Rally2 but the M-Sport driver crashed out on the Power Stage to cement a weekend of misery for his team after Pierre-Louis Loubet and Ott Tanak both failed to go the distance in their Ford Puma Rally1s.

Fourmaux’s late exit let in Andreas Mikkelsen for the WRC2 victory ahead of Teemu Suninen and Kajetan Kajetanowicz.

Safari Rally Kenya is next from June 22-25 and with the long-range weather forecasts reporting heavy rain, another tough WRC counter is expected.

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