PHOTO: Thierry Neuville (right) and co-driver Nicholas Gilsoul celebrate in Sardinia (Hyundai pic)
BELGIUM’S Thierry Neuville emerged from a career slump to claim his career-second FIA World Rally Championship victory at Rally Italia Sardegna on Sunday afternoon.
After a difficult end to 2015 and troubled start to this season, all came good for the Hyundai team driver on the Mediterranean island as he won the rough four-day event by 24.8 seconds.
But after accepting the trophy and taking a traditional winners’ swim with his teammates in Alghero Harbour, Neuville had an agonising wait while officials investigated the technical eligibility of his car. Eventually his Hyundai team was found to have fitted non-approved rear door windows and fined 50,000 Euros (A$76,295), but allowed to keep the win.
He became the fifth different winner in the last five FIA World Rally Championship rounds, adding to his maiden victory in Germany in 2014.
PHOTOS: Above, Neuville powers to victory through the rough Sardinia stages. Below, Hyundai team members take a traditional winners’ swim in Alghero harbour (Hyundai pics)
Neuville won nine of the 19 stages in his Hyundai i20, moving to the front on Friday afternoon and repelling a determined challenge from Jari-Matti Latvala. The Finn closed to within three seconds on Saturday before Neuville pulled clear and eased through Sunday’s final leg.
“We had a great weekend and great things come to those who go and earn it,” Neuville said.
“The feeling was good in the car; hopefully it’ll be like this for the rest of the season. It wasn’t easy but we keep working and it’s good for the confidence.”
Despite an ill-handling Volkswagen Polo R, Latvala led three times on Friday as he exchanged blows with Neuville and three-time World Champion Sébastien Ogier. A new gearbox fixed the handling issues but Latvala conceded defeat on Sunday morning when the gap rose increased to 20sec.
Ogier extended his championship lead by finishing third in another Polo R. As road-opener, he lost time sweeping the dry gravel and gambled with soft tyres on Friday and Saturday morning to achieve his target of a podium finish.
Dani Sordo claimed his fourth consecutive fourth place in an i20 to climb to second in the points standings. Ott Tänak and Eric Camilli, who claimed his maiden stage victory for the M-Sport team, completed the top six in Ford Fiesta RS cars.
Camilli’s senior teammate Mads Østberg failed to restart on Sunday after his team diagnosed a damaged engine. Other major retirements earlier in the rally included Kiwi Hayden Paddon, who spectacularly crashed his Hyundai for the second straight event and Lorenzo Bertelli, who also crashed.
After winning last month’s Vodafone Rally de Portugal, Britain’s Kris Meeke and his part-time Citroen team did not compete in Sardinia.
The FIA World Rally Championship continues at PZM Rally Poland on 30 June to 3 July – th half-way point in the season – when the Australian crew of Scott Pedder and Dale Moscatt resume their challenge in the WRC2 category.
RESULTS, Rally Italia Sardegna (WRC round 6 of 14):
1 T. Neuville / N. Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 WRC) 3:35:25.8
2 J. M. Latvala / M. Anttila (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) +24.8
3 S. Ogier / J. Ingrassia (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) +1:37.8
4 D. Sordo / M. Marti (Hyundai i20 WRC) +2:54.0
5 O. Tanak / R. Molder (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +5:26.4
6 E. Camilli / B. Veillas (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +5:59.8
7 H. Solberg / I. Minor (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +6:22.2
8 T. Suninen / M. Markkula (Škoda Fabia R5) +8:57.4
9 J. Kopecky / P. Dresler (Škoda Fabia R5) +9:47.0
10 K. Kruuda / M. Jarveoja (Ford Fiesta R5) +13:28.5
FIA World Rally Drivers’ Championship:
S. Ogier 132 points
D. Sordo 68
A. Mikkelsen 67
M. Østberg 58
H. Paddon 57
J. M. Latvala 56
T. Neuville 48
O. Tanak 34
K. Meeke 26
E. Camilli 22
FIA World Rally Manufacturers Championship:
1 Volkswagen Motorsport 178 points
2 Hyundai Motorsport 108
3 M-Sport World Rally Team 90
4 Hyundai Motorsport N 78
5 Volkswagen Motorsport II 74
6 DMACK World Rally Team 40