Ott Tänak ended his long search for another FIA World Rally Championship victory with a convincing win at Rally Italia Sardegna on Sunday afternoon.
The Hyundai Motorsport driver was on dominant form on the Mediterranean island’s punishing rock-strewn roads and brought his hybrid-powered i20 N Rally1 car home 1min 3.2sec clear of M-Sport Ford driver Craig Breen.
Tänak’s win at the championship’s fifth round was certainly long-awaited. The last time he stood on the top step of the podium was at Arctic Rally Finland powered by CapitalBox in 2021, which was 462 days ago. Since then, he has struggled to find rally-winning form, mainly due to mechanical troubles.
The Estonian was on the pace from the get-go and traded the lead with GR Yaris driver Esapekka Lappi on Friday’s shortened opening leg. A transmission issue on the final blast left him with only three-wheel drive and he trailed the Finn by 0.7sec overnight.
The stage was set for a thrilling battle over Saturday’s marathon leg, which took place in the Monte Acuto region with no midday service.
However, the fight was over just 10.4km into the opening Tempio Pausania test when Lappi’s car rebounded from a heavy compression and bounced into a rock which ripped off the rear left wheel and suspension components.
Lappi’s demise left Tänak clear at the top and he went on to win six of Saturday’s seven speed tests, carrying a hefty advantage into the final leg despite insisting that he wasn’t pushing. He was then able to ease through the final four stages and claim a 15th career win.
“It’s been very challenging, especially since the beginning of this [hybrid] generation,” said Tänak.
“We are definitely very happy, especially for the mechanics – they put in an incredible effort all of last year and the beginning of this year. This rally was not easy and they made a good job to keep the car going.
“We have made some good steps. In Portugal, we were really struggling and actually we managed to improve. No doubt, if the confidence is there then we can do a good job. We just need to keep working,” he added.
Breen was delighted to grab his best-ever result for M-Sport Ford
The Irishman ended Friday just inside the top-five following a spin and an overshoot, but moved into second soon afterwards when team-mate Pierre-Louis Loubet punctured a front left tyre.
He came under pressure from Dani Sordo before delivering a handful of top-three times on Saturday to bridge the gap to his Spanish rival.
Sordo, ever the safe pair of hands, eventually completed the podium 29.8sec behind. He struggled to find a comfortable set-up early in the rally, but gradual improvements unlocked more pace from his i20 N and a stall following a water splash on SS16 was his only real bump in the road.
Pierre-Louis Loubet brought his Puma 36.4sec further back to mark a career-best result of fourth overall. He took on a mature approach following the puncture, showing pace when needed but also comfortably managing the gap to Kalle Rovanperä, who ended 53.4sec behind.
Rovanperä was the best-finishing Toyota with fifth on what was a disappointing event for the team.
He had the dubious task of opening the road on Friday and initially languished in eighth after struggling for traction on the loose and dusty surface, but an improved road position on Saturday helped him climb the order.
The Finn was able to leapfrog Yaris colleague Takamoto Katsuta, who finished sixth, as well as Adrien Fourmaux, who crashed out on SS17, and he now leads the championship by a commanding 55 points.
Gus Greensmith was seventh after a frustrating weekend
The Briton overshot a right-hander on Friday and dropped around two minutes while fumbling to get his Puma restarted. After that, he focused on bringing the car home and testing different set-ups.
Huttunen 3rd in WRC2
The rest of the leaderboard was made up of support category cars. WRC2 winner Nikolay Gryazin headed Jan Solans and Jari Huttunen, who completed the top ten.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville managed to salvage five points with the Wolf Power Stage win after rolling his i20 N out of contention on Saturday. Elfyn Evans also had a rally to forget after retiring on both Friday and Saturday.
The championship reaches its midpoint with a hotly-anticipated visit to Africa next month. The legendary Safari Rally Kenya is based in Naivasha on 23 – 26 June.
Text and photo: WRC