Thierry Neuville vaulted from fifth to second in the FIA World Rally Championship standings on Sunday afternoon after clinching a long-awaited victory at Rally Italia Sardegna.
Belgian star Neuville headed i20 N partner Esapekka Lappi by 33.0sec in a dream 1-2 finish for Hyundai at round six of 13, scoring his 18th career success alongside co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe.
The result served as a maiden 2023 triumph for both Neuville and his team, helping the Korean marque to move within 23 points of championship-leading manufacturer Toyota Gazoo Racing.
The lead changed hands a whopping nine times during the fast and furious Mediterranean island fixture until Neuville seized the initiative when GR Yaris rival Sébastien Ogier went off the road in Saturday’s rain-hit penultimate test.
He surpassed Lappi, who celebrated his third-consecutive top-three finish, in the same stage and managed a comfortable advantage through Sunday’s four-stage finale.
“Obviously it was a challenging weekend,” said Neuville, who now trails series leader Kalle Rovanperä by 25 points. “We came here with the belief that we could fight for victory but the first day was challenging and we lost a bit of time. Yesterday we found ourselves in the lead and we had to manage it until the end.
“It’s the first victory for the team this year, it’s a 1-2, and the first win for our team principal [Cyril Abiteboul] as well. Craig Breen is in our memories also – we wanted the win in Croatia for him, but we got it now.”
Rovanperä completed the podium in third overall, his best result out of five Rally Italia Sardegna attempts.
Although he trailed fellow Finn Lappi by 1min 22.3sec at the finish, the high rate of attrition saw him end a sizeable 3min 25.2sec clear of fourth-placed Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans. Evans struggled to get into a rhythm in his GR Yaris and dropped around three minutes on Saturday when the car’s radiator sustained damage in a water crossing.
Dani Sordo almost made it three Hyundais in the top five but retired after the day’s second stage due to exhaust failure. It brought an early end to what been a turbulent weekend for the Spaniard, having previously rolled his i20 N on Friday morning.
His demise paved the way for Andreas Mikkelsen to claim fifth overall as well as taking a surprise victory in WRC2. He had trailed Adrien Fourmaux by more than half a minute before the Wolf Power Stage but the Frenchman slid off the road 1.4km after the start.
The WRC season enters its second half with a hotly anticipated visit to Africa later this month. The legendary Safari Rally Kenya is based in Naivasha and takes place from 22 – 25 June.