Thierry Neuville has snatched Rally Italy victory by just 0.7 seconds, taking it down to the wire and overhauling World Rally Championship rival Sebastien Ogier for the win on the final stage of the event.
It is the third closest finish in the history of the WRC with both drivers throwing caution to the wind in the closing stage.
In the uncharacteristically wet conditions of the rally, championship leader Neuville was not particularly disadvantaged by running first on the road and was sitting in second-place by Friday’s lunchtime service.
It was after Ogier had surged past Neuville and Andreas Mikkelsen to take the lead that Neuville and Ogier’s battle began in earnest, with the Hyundai driver closing the gap between them down to just 4.9 seconds after the Saturday’s morning loop.
With Ogier continuing to be off the pace in the afternoon Neuville whittled down the gap to under three seconds, before a slow puncture allowed Ogier’s lead to grow back slightly.
3.9 seconds separated the pair going into Saturday and three stage wins for Neuville meant he was trailing Ogier by a mere 0.8 seconds going into the powerstage.
A hurried departure by Ogier from the penultimate stage resulted in co-driver Julien Ingrassia leaving the M-Sport driver’s time card behind. The missing card was delivered to the next stage by Toyota’s Ott Tanak and Ogier was issued a suspended penalty and 10,000 euro fine but the reigning champion will only lose his 22 points if the offence is repeated.
Regardless of the incident Neuville was able to overhaul Ogier with the powerstage win, extending his championship lead over his rival to 27 points.
Esapekka Lappi ended the rally in third, his first podium of the season, after duelling with Toyota team-mate and compatriot Jari-Matti Latvala for much of Saturday.
However Lappi ended the rally unhindered by competition after a suspected alternator damage from hitting a rock caused Latvala to stop the car on the way back to service on Friday evening.
He re-entered on Sunday under Rally2 regulations and as he only incurred a minimal time penalty he was able to finish the rally in seventh and end his points drought.
Fourth went to Hayden Paddon who managed to eek out his lead over Citroen’s Mads Ostberg to 15.7 seconds after the pair finished Saturday with 2.1 seconds between them.
Craig Breen finished the weekend in sixth after a tough weekend, ahead of Latvala and Tanak, who sat in third on Friday morning but incurred terminal damage on Friday’s final stage after landing nose-first going over a flat-out jump.
The Finn had been running in fourth on Friday morning, ahead of team-mate Ogier but had to start Saturday under Rally2 regulations after clipping a curb and being sent off into the bushes. His bad luck continued on Saturday when he was forced to stop and repair damage after again clipping the banking.
WRC2 winner Jan Kopecky ended the rally in ninth, with M-Sport’s Teemu Suninen in 10th.
Elfyn Evans finished out of the top 10 after losing 13 minutes on Friday due to a steering arm issue, along with early rally leader Andreas Mikkelsen whose gearbox problems caused him to stop 10kms into SS7 where a hay bale was then set alight by the heat of his Hyundai’s exhaust.