Island in the sun is Ford's location for The Italian Job Island hopping in the Mediterranean will be on the agenda for the BP-Ford World Rally Team during the next month as the FIA World Rally Championship moves into its final quarter. Sardinia...
Island in the sun is Ford's location for The Italian Job
Island hopping in the Mediterranean will be on the agenda for the BP-Ford World Rally Team during the next month as the FIA World Rally Championship moves into its final quarter. Sardinia and Corsica play host to rounds 13 and 14, but there will be little opportunity for relaxation on the Rally Italia Sardinia (30 September - 3 October) as drivers and engineers come to terms with the third new rally in this year's series.
Top five finishes on the last round in Britain earlier this month for both Markko Märtin and Michael Park and team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot earned Ford its 40th consecutive points finish with the Focus RS World Rally Car. They will look to extend that record, and further consolidate second position in the manufacturers' championship, on a rally that has not only changed location, but also changed surface.
The slippery asphalt mountain roads of the Sanremo Rally have been an ever-present in the championship since it began in 1973. However, the desire to reduce the number of sealed surface events in the series has led to the gravel event in Sardinia taking over as Italy's round of the championship.
The event will be new for everyone. With the start and finish in Porto Cervo, one of Europe's most exclusive resorts, the rally is located in the same region as the Rallye Costa Smeralda, formerly a round of the European Championship. However, the speed tests are totally different and all but 12km of the 384.23km of competition have never been used before.
Fast, narrow and technically demanding, many of the special stages are held on privately-owned military land with a wide variety of road surface. Some have a fine, sandy top which has been likened to the special stages in Argentina, with bushes and other vegetation close to the edge of the track. It is expected they may become rutted after the first pass. A minority are believed to be rough and rocky while others are smooth and on a hard-packed surface.
Märtin, who lies third in the drivers' standings in his Castrol-branded Focus RS, acknowledges that a new event will bring difficulties. "I don't really know what to expect in Sardinia because I have never been there before," he said. "The stages will be new to everyone so that ensures that nobody has the advantage of greater experience. In this situation it is important to work hard during the recce. We are only allowed to practice the roads twice before the rally so it is crucial to make sure that the pace notes are as accurate as possible. Two rallies ago in Japan, which was another new event, I struggled with my notes for the first two legs. I don't want to repeat that."
"Obviously it's always more difficult the first time you drive competitively over roads that are unknown. Because speeds during the recce are restricted, it's only at full rally pace that a driver really finds all the tricky places. It's good to have the opportunity to drive a new rally and from what I hear the roads have a bit of everything, so it will be a good challenge," added the 28-year-old Estonian.
Duval and Prévot lie sixth in the drivers' points table in their Focus RS. Another new rally is good news for the 23-year-old Belgian driver. "I have little experience of some events in a World Rally Car compared to most of my rivals," he explained. "They know the stages and have perfect pace notes while I am still improving mine. Sardinia will be different. All the drivers will arrive on the island at exactly the same level and, if we prepare properly, then we can be just as competitive as anyone else.
"I enjoy tackling new rallies and it will be important to make sure I finish the event. The only way to learn the roads on a new rally is to drive all the stages competitively. An early retirement would be a waste because next year I would still have to learn them, while the other drivers would have the advantage of a year's experience over me. So it will be important to find a comfortable pace and a comfortable rhythm and not take any unnecessary risks," added Duval.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson visited the Rallye Costa Smeralda last year to gain a feel for the region. "I think it could be an event with more variation than any other rally in the world championship," he said. "The nature of the roads varies considerably and there is a wide selection of surfaces. Our tyre engineer, George Black, has been over there to drive through the stages to obtain the data for making tyre nominations. His feedback is that some roads are as rough as Kenya, some are as smooth as Finland and a high percentage are quite sandy. I think it's going to be a very interesting event."
* Märtin and Duval both drove during a three-day test in the Catalunya region of Spain this week. Märtin was behind the wheel on Tuesday and Wednesday with Duval rounding off the session on Thursday. Cool mornings gave way to hot afternoons, with temperatures reaching 26°C. Märtin covered 400km in total, concentrating on the first day on car set-up and tyre testing for the forthcoming asphalt events in Corsica and Spain. The second day was devoted to development work on the suspension. Duval completed about 200km, focusing initially on car set-up before also undertaking development work during the afternoon.
The rally is based in the province of Gallura, in the north-east of Sardinia, with the three legs spread out in a semi-circle across the region. The port of Olbia hosts the rally but the Costa Smeralda's principal resort of Porto Cervo is the location for the ceremonial start on Thursday evening, Sunday's finish and all the overnight halts. The opening leg is the longest of the rally with 158.56km of stages and takes competitors south to the slopes of Monte Tepilora. The bulk of the second day is located further west in the hills of Monte Lerno. It includes two passes over the 34.21km Tandalo, the longest stage of the rally, with a short lunchtime test further north which will be shown live on television. The final leg is based on the slopes of Monte Limbara, 50km west of Olbia. More than 30 per cent of the 1228.92km route is competitive, making it one of the most compact events in the championship.