Rally Italy may have lacked the final day victory fight offered by the World Rally Championship’s previous events but Sardinia’s bruising gravel roads left several scars that could define the future of several crews.
Just like Rally Portugal, two weeks earlier, Hyundai’s dominant grasp on Rally Italy’s top places unravelled through the second half of the event. 11 stages in, Ott Tanak held a 40-second lead. Dani Sordo held third just six seconds behind Sebastien Ogier.
One stage later, Tanak found himself stranded at the side of the road. His Hyundai crippled once again by suspension failure. The only difference between his Sardinian demise to that on Amarante being the more obvious offending rock that caused his damage this time around.
Ogier and Elfyn Evans took full advantage of Hyundai’s self-destruction to claim another Toyota 1-2 this year. It has left them in charge at the top of both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships.
Rally Italy was filled with dramas and left me with the question, how have they affected the future of some key world rally drivers? I’ve picked out three to assess where it leaves them after five rounds of the 2021 World Rally Championship.
M-Sport’s Finnish talent should be the Cumbrian squad’s most reliable wingman this season. Sharing M-Sport’s second Ford Fiesta WRC with Adrian Fourmaux, Suninen is the most recognised driver out of Blue Oval’s three pilots.
But on his third World Rally Car appearance of 2021, Suninen couldn’t even make it through Rally Italy’s first stage. What makes his mistake even worse is that deja vu feeling. Nobody forgets his Rally Monte-Carlo SS1 shunt to kick-off the year.
His Rally Italy exit seemed as simple as they get. Suninen came in much too hot for an innocuous right-hander and slid off the road into an unrecoverable position. It was unfortunate but it was yet another taint on his season.
What does all this mean in the big picture?
Well, M-Sport’s Malcolm Wilson hasn’t shied away from the fact that he wants winners in his car next year.
As exciting as Gus Greensmith and Fourmaux’s recent pace has been, they are a few years early in their development to lead a manufacturers’ title challenge in next year’s Rally1 cars.
Suninen needs to be punching in eye-catching performances to show he is a capable championship contender if given a competitive car.
Instead, his year so far has been filled with mistakes. With former team-mate Esapekka Lappi and Norway’s Andreas Mikkelsen doing all in their power to seal a factory drive next year, is Suninen’s second Stage 1 exit of 2021 going to hinder his hopes of sealing an M-Sport Ford Rally1 seat?
I’ve already touched on Tanak’s Day 2 disaster in Sardinia. Suspension failures have cost the Estonian 50 points in the past three weeks. Whether they are his fault or not, the WRC does not hand out sympathy points and sitting 57 points behind an in-form Ogier leaves us begging the question, is Tanak’s title challenge already over?
Of course, ruling Tanak out after five rounds is much too early, especially considering how quick he has been on the WRC’s loose surface events this season. In terms of speed, he has been untouchable.
But as I wrote before Rally Portugal, WRC’s summer spell of gravel rallies are crucial to Tanak’s title ambitions. Two events in and he has picked up just nine points, courtesy of each rally’s Power Stage.
Tanak’s asphalt form with Hyundai leaves a lot to be desired and with much of the second-half of the season on sealed surfaces it really does leave him with an uphill battle to claim his second drivers’ crown.
By this stage of the year, Mikkelsen was hoping to be putting the finishing touches to his WRC 2 campaign. The Norwegian returned to rallying in fine form last Autumn, taking R5 wins on Rally Hungary and Rally Monza.
He started off 2021 showing the same intent as he secured a comfortable 1 minute 52-second WRC 2 win on Rally Monte-Carlo. Mikkelsen didn’t hide the fact that he wanted to dominate WRC’s second tier in the first half of the season so he could focus on securing a factory drive in 2022.
But ever since playing second fiddle to an impressive, also-returning Esapekka Lappi on Arctic Rally Finland, Mikkelsen’s WRC outings have been ruined by mistakes.
The Skoda driver’s roll on Rally Italy was his second opening day exit in succession. Mikkelsen lost a wheel on Stage 2 of his previous WRC outing in Croatia.
His earlier Rally2 form had put Mikkelsen in prime contention for Rally1’s remaining seats and photos ahead of Rally Italy hinted at a Mikkelsen – M-Sport test before the rally.
The three-time world rally winner also missed Rally Portugal after testing positive for coronavirus. All-in-all the past few months have been a stumbling block in Mikkelsen’s Rally2 running.
The unknown of Safari Rally Kenya is probably the toughest place to refocus and nail down a solid result but that is exactly what Mikkelsen needs to do if he is to regain the traction that he showcased last winter.
Photos courtesy of Toyota, Hyundai, M-Sport, and Red Bull Content Pool