Ford's asphalt expert Thiry has high hopes in Italy

The mountain roads of northern Italy signal that the FIA World Rally Championship is moving towards it climax. With just three of the 13 rounds remaining, Ford World Rally team's next challenge is the Sanremo Rally, which starts tomorrow morning from the coastal town just inside the Italian border.

High-speed asphalt special stages, unpredictable weather conditions in the mountains and the meeting of the World Championship regulars with the European asphalt experts combine to make the event a challenging one and the rally has attracted undoubtedly the strongest entry of any in the 1998 series.

Ford's top hope for victory is Belgian Bruno Thiry, who has a brand new Valvoline-backed Escort World Rally Car for this final all-asphalt event of the 1998 season. Thiry has an unblemished finishing record in this rally from his five starts, his best result coming on his last appearance here in 1996 when he finished third.

Changes to the rally route since then mean that while his knowledge of the first and third legs, held over similar roads in the mountains above Sanremo, is good, he has never competed on the stages used during the second day in the hills north of Savona.

"Yes, those roads are new to me and I've seen from our recce that they are very different from the stages close to Sanremo," said the 37-year-old, who is co-driven by Stephane Prevot. "It's impossible to cut the corners on the stages around Sanremo while the stages near Savona are more open. It means cars can cut the corners, dragging gravel onto the roads and making them very, very slippery.

"The quality of grip will vary quite a lot and it will be very hard to make the perfect tyre choice so we must work very closely with Michelin's engineers," added Thiry, who spent several days testing Michelin's latest rubber before the rally.

Team-mates Juha Kankkunen and Juha Repo drive the other Escort World Rally Car, the 39-year-old four-time world champion driver welcoming the blue skies and bright sunshine seen on yesterday's final test session after a rain-lashed recce last week.

"It's been raining hard all the time and the water washes a lot of loose gravel and stones onto the road," he said. "Dry weather makes the conditions far more predictable, although I think the volume of rain in the last few days means that, even if it is dry, there will be damp patches under the trees where the sun has not reached."

The three-day rally starts from Sanremo at 08.00 tomorrow. Drivers face eight stages in the mountains near the town, totalling 120km, before reaching the overnight halt at 19.15.