THIERRY Neuville snatched a thrilling Rally Italia Sardegna victory on Sunday after edging FIA World Rally Championship title rival Sébastien Ogier in an electrifying, last-stage shootout.
PHOTO: Hyundai driver Thierry Neuville (right) and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul celebrate their thrilling narrow victory in Rally Italia Sardegna (Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Media pic)
Neuville trailed Ogier by 0.8sec ahead of the 6.96km Power Stage, but delivered a daredevil drive in his Hyundai i20 to overhaul the Frenchman and claim his third win of the season by 0.7sec.
At the half-way point of the season, the Belgian extended his championship lead over Ogier to 27 points, setting the scene for a major battle over the remaining rounds to the finale at Kennards Hire Rally Australia on the NSW Coffs Coast on 15-18 November.
Neuville’s Sardinia-winning margin was the third-smallest in the WRC’s 45-year history, matching Neuville’s success in Argentina last year when he performed a similar snatch-and-grab on Elfyn Evans.
The Belgian – winner of Kennards Hire Rally Australia in 2017 – started Sunday’s short final leg along Sardinia’s north-west coast 3.9sec adrift of Ogier. He won the opening three stages before both drivers threw caution to the wind in the finale.
Both made mistakes on the dusty, rocky tracks but Neuville emerged on top.
“I gave it everything, it was a really great fight and such a small difference at the end,” he said. “We needed to make a decision at the start of the last stage and our decision was to go for the win. We believed strongly and pushed hard.”
Ogier was far from downhearted.
“We lost one battle, but definitely not the war. It’s not the time to panic. I tried everything I could today, but I was always losing a few tenths here and there,” he said.
The results remain provisional after an unusual incident at the finish of the penultimate stage, when Ogier hurriedly departed in his Ford Fiesta without collecting his time card from officials. It was delivered to him later by Toyota driver Ott Tänak and news was awaited on whether Ogier would be penalised.
Esapekka Lappi eased through the final leg’s 42.04km of action to claim third in a Toyota Yaris. With big time gaps in front and behind, the Finn took no risks to secure his first podium of the season.
New Zealander Hayden Paddon shrugged off lingering back pain from a crash at the previous round in Portugal to finish fourth in a Hyundai. After restarting with a 2.1sec advantage over Mads Østberg’s Citroen C3, Paddon distanced the Norwegian to finish 15.7sec clear.
Craig Breen completed the top six in another C3. Jari-Matti Latvala restarted after Saturday night’s late retirement and came home seventh in a Yaris, just ahead of teammate Ott Tänak. was next up, ahead of WRC 2 winner Jan Kopecký and Teemu Suninen.
The championship pauses for a mid-season break before resuming on the ultra-fast gravel roads of Neste Rally Finland on 26-29 July.
Results, Vodafone Rally Italia Sardegna (WRC round 7of 13):
1 Thierry Neuville / Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 WRC) 3:29:18.7
2 Sébastien Ogier / Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +0.7
3 Esapekka Lappi / Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) + 1:56.3
4 Hayden Paddon / Seb Marshall (Hyundai i20 WRC) + 2:55.2
5 Mads Østberg / Torstein Eriksen (Citroën C3 WRC) + 3:10.9
6 Craig Breen / Scott Martin (Citroën C3 WRC) + 4:31.7
7 Jari-Matti Latvala / Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) + 11:22.1
8 Ott Tänak / Martin Järveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) + 12:38.2
9 Jan Kopecky / Pavel Dresler (Skoda Fabia R5) + 13:14.6
10 Timo Suninen / Mikko Markkula (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) + 15:30.4
2018 WRC Drivers’ Standings (after Rd 7):
1 Thierry Neuville 149 points
2 Sébastien Ogier 122
3 Ott Tänak 79
4 Esapekka Lappi 70
5 Dani Sordo 60
6 Andreas Mikkelsen 56
7 Elfyn Evans 46
8 Kris Meeke 43
9 Jari-Matti Latvala 37
10 Craig Breen 34
2018 WRC Manufacturers’ Standings (after Rd 7):
1 Hyundai WRT 212 points
2 M-Sport Ford WRT 184
3 Toyota Gazoo Racing 151
4 Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT 129