Thierry Neuville claimed his first rally win with new-for-2021 co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe with victory on the Ciocco Rally in Italy, but his Hyundai Motorsport team-mate Craig Breen crashed out after a sudden puncture.
Neuville and Breen were both entered for the opening round of a fiercely competitive Italian championship in a pair of i20 R5s as they looked to build their asphalt seat time ahead of the next World Rally Championship round in Croatia.
It afforded Neuville the opportunity to strengthen his partnership with Wydaeghe – who replaced Nicolas Gilsoul in the co-drivers’ seat just days before the Monte Carlo Rally in January – while for Breen and Paul Nagle it was a chance to further prove their potential.
Breen and Nagle won on their previous Italian appearance – Rally di Alba – last August and finished fourth on the Ciocco Rally in a Škoda two years ago, and they led the 2021 event after two stages.
But their rally unraveled on the fifth of 10 special stages when they left the road and crashed in what Breen later described as a “nasty accident.”
On a video posted on Instagram, he said: “We picked up a puncture on the front-right on a fast right corner followed immediately by a left that tightened and the moment I turned for the left the tire just kicked off the bead and we were passengers from that point.
“We’re OK albeit a bit shaken up. We’ve been to the hospital and had our check-ups but all is on order. Obviously a disappointing way to end the rally.”
There were no such concerns for Neuville, however, who won six stages to record a 22.7-second win, though he faced a stern challenge from Stefano Albertini’s Fabia Rally2 evo which led the rally after SS3.
Neuville’s rally wasn’t without its minor issues. He confessed to struggling with some mud on the road as the 10th car onto the stage and indeed he slid from the overnight rally lead – which he’d earned after winning Friday’s street stage – to third after the opener on Saturday.
He also encountered two dogs on SS4, which cost him the stage win to Breen, but thankfully neither animal was harmed. And with Albertini just 11th quickest, Neuville moved into a lead he would not relinquish thereafter to finish comfortably clear of Albertini (pictured below), who eased off on the final loop, and third-placed Giandomenico Basso.
Junior WRC driver Fabio Andolfi (Škoda) and Damiano De Tomasso (Citroën) were embroiled in a tight battle for the final podium spot, drawing level with each other before the final two stages.
But SS9 would prove De Tomasso’s undoing as he crashed out, paving the path clear for Andolfi – only for triple Italian and double European champion Basso to vault past him on the final test with a stage win. Basso was just 8.7s shy of Albertini’s similar Škoda machine.
Last year’s Ciocco Rally winner and defending Italian champion Andrea Crugnola – who has switched from a Citroën C3 to a Hyundai i20 for 2021 – was an early fifth overall before plummeting down to 26th after SS4 with a broken driveshaft across two stages.
He fought back impressively to finish 10th, a mere 0.7s adrift of ninth-placed, 11-time Italian champion Paolo Andreucci, who by driving a Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo started his first rally not in a Peugeot or Citroën since 2008.
Rudy Michelini was fifth ahead of Tomasso Ciuffi, Thomas Paperini and Marco Signor.
ERC regulars Erik Cais and Filip Mareš finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th.