Teemu Suninen won Friday morning’s opening two speed tests at Rally Italia Sardegna to charge into the lead.
Stage info: SS2/3
SS2: Tula 1, 22.25km
Changes in pace mean drivers can make a real difference in here. It starts on medium speed roads before becoming faster, then returning to medium pace near the finish. The surface is sandy in places with grass growing down the middle of some tracks. It’s twisty in parts with big compressions and jumps and passes through a wind farm. Essentially the same stage as 2018, with some minor changes, and one of the most difficult of the rally.
SS3: Castelsardo 1, 14.72km
After a narrow and technical opening across moorland, Castelsardo switches from gravel to asphalt for 1200 metres midway through. Following a series of dips and compressions, it changes character after a tunnel. A steep climb through hairpin bends on a stony road, which will be hard on tyres and transmission, leads to the final section. It has a compact surface, with bed rock and ruts remaining from last year.
The Finn, partnered by experienced co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen for the first time, relegated overnight leader Sébastien Ogier by winning the Tula special stage by 4.8sec from Ford Fiesta team-mate Elfyn Evans.
He repeated the feat in Castelsardo, 1.7sec quicker than Jari-Matti Latvala to head the Toyota Yaris driver by 10.6sec in the overall standings with two more stages remaining of the morning loop.
Suninen and Latvala were both caught out by a tricky left corner in Castelsardo.
“After the compression there was a very slippery left bend and we almost overshot. Luckily we managed to keep the engine running and we only lost a few seconds,” explained Latvala.
Evans was 1.4sec back in third. The Welshman was fifth in Castelsardo to add to second fastest in Tula but was unhappy with his Fiesta’s brakes. Dani Sordo was 3.4sec behind in fourth, despite puncturing the rear left tyre on his Hyundai i20 in Tula.
Hot and dry conditions meant the early starters struggled for grip on the sandy roads. Ott Tänak fared best of the three principal title challengers who started at the head of the running order. The Estonian was sixth in a Yaris, 16.4sec off the lead.
Esapekka Lappi completed the top six but the Finn suspected a front differential problem as he struggled to wrestle his Citroën C3 around the narrow and twisty tracks.
Road opener Sébastien Ogier and Thierry Neuville, third in the start order, coped less well than Tänak. Ogier was almost 30sec off the lead in 10th in his C3 with Neuville two places better off in eighth.
Tyre options were varied, but while all the other frontrunners included at least two hard compound Michelins in their selection, Neuville opted for six mediums. The Belgian was more concerned about the weight of carrying an extra spare, which adversely affected his i20’s handling.
Team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen also leaned towards medium compounds and was clear that was a mistake. “Completely wrong tyre choice. Nothing we can do but the car is everywhere,” said the Norwegian, who lay seventh.