Spaniard Sordo sped through the closing special stage of the opening leg at Italy’s ‘Cathedral of Speed’ circuit to demote the Finn and lead this final round of the FIA World Rally Championship by 1.0sec.
Heavy rain transformed the track and parkland roads into a muddy mess, with standing water causing aquaplaning. Conditions were so extreme that drivers opted for Michelin’s heavily-treaded snow tyre in an effort to find grip.
Sordo won the opening test in his Hyundai i20 to relegate overnight leader Sébastien Ogier, but Lappi was first to gamble on snow tyres and immediately moved ahead. His lead stayed intact until the final test when he ploughed through a chicane and fell behind.
Sordo, who won two of the five stages, was rewarded for making changes to his car’s set-up to improve the handling after yesterday’s curtain-raising test.
“Conditions were very difficult but at the end we tried to push to be in front and be in the right place in the start order tomorrow. It’s important to be at the back and see the lines in the snow,” explained Sordo, who will restart last of the frontrunners.
Ogier was the first of four men who started the season finale with a title tilt. He won one stage to lie third in his Toyota Yaris, 11.0sec adrift of Lappi’s Ford Fiesta, despite twice clipping bales and spinning.
To secure a seventh title, Ogier must distance team-mate Elfyn Evans, but the Welshman was only 5.1sec behind in fourth after a measured drive.
“Conditions were pretty bad. I had a couple of mistakes in the shakedown yesterday and realised how easy it was to make mistakes. We haven’t been spectacularly fast, but not far off, and managed to keep it to just a few small errors,” he said.
Ott Tänak, whose chances of retaining the title hang by a thread, was fifth, despite receiving a shock when the driver’s door of his i20 flew open during SS2. The Estonian was 0.6sec behind Evans and 7.1sec clear of Kalle Rovanperä’s Yaris.
Andreas Mikkelsen ran as high as third, matching the more powerful World Rally Cars in his WRC 3-specification Skoda Fabia Evo. He ended seventh, ahead of top-flight debutant Ole Christian Veiby. Emil Lindholm and Oliver Solberg completed the leaderboard.
Thierry Neuville was the first of the title hopefuls to fall. After sliding into a fence this morning, the Belgian clipped a chicane this afternoon before finally retiring when his i20’s engine stopped after ploughing through standing water.
Teemu Suninen retired after limping through three stages with a misfiring engine in his Ford Fiesta and team-mate Gus Greensmith exited when he hit a gate and broke his front right suspension.
Saturday’s longest leg is based on roads near Lake Como, in the foothills of the Italian Alps. Two identical loops of three tests are followed by a closing stage at Monza. The mountain weather will play a massive role, with snow certain to cover the high sections.