Rally Italia Sardegna
All work and no play as Ford takes on Sardinia challenge
Italy's holiday island of Sardinia is the fifth stop in Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team's challenge for the FIA World Rally Championship next week. However, there will be no opportunity to sample the pleasures of the sparkling Emerald Coast as the squad returns to action at Rally Italia Sardegna (5 - 8 May) in one of the closest and most exciting campaigns for years.
The surface is sandier than most European gravel rallies, so it's an advantage for me not to be first in the start order for the first time on gravel this season.
The team is tied for the lead in the manufacturers' standings with the Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car after four of the 13 rounds. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are among four pairings covered by just eight points in the battle for the drivers' title. And this gravel road encounter follows the drama of the Jordan Rally earlier this month, when Latvala finished just 0.2sec from victory in the WRC's closest-ever finish.
The industrial town of Olbia, nestled below Porto Cervo and the shimmering Costa Smeralda in the north-east of the island, hosts the rally. Most of the competition is held in the hills and forests further south, where great scenery provides a captivating backdrop to the action in the speed tests.
A sandy road surface masks a hard base beneath and the special stages can become rutted during the second pass. The tracks are generally fast and flowing, but are frequently narrow, demanding precision in selecting driving lines.
The rally returns to the WRC after a year's absence and brings with it new roads for next Friday's opening leg close to the island's west coast. Described as technical and tricky, they will require pinpoint accuracy in the preparation of pace notes by drivers, who can make only two slow-speed passes over the stages before driving them flat out.
Hirvonen, second in the championship and just two points from the lead, has finished runner-up in Sardinia on the last four occasions. "The roads are narrow and there is no defined edge to them, so instead of having a ditch to mark the side of the track, there are bushes, trees or rocks which add extra difficulty," said the 30-year-old Finn.
"The surface is sandier than most European gravel rallies, so it's an advantage for me not to be first in the start order for the first time on gravel this season. I struggled with that in Jordan on the first day, while trying to find the right car set-up, but two fastest times on the second day was a confidence boost. The Fiesta feels fantastic on gravel and the speed it has shown on the loose indicates we should be fully competitive everywhere," he added.
Latvala won the rally in 2009, the second of his four WRC victories, and the 26-year-old Finn has recovered from the disappointment of coming so close to adding a fifth win in Jordan. "At least this is the WRC and I have only had to wait three weeks for the next rally. If it had been the Olympic Games, I would have had a four-year wait!" he joked.
"I completed about 230km during testing yesterday (Wednesday). I made a lot of changes to the set-up to see what effect they had on the car. There were no improvements which was pleasing, because it confirmed to me that my original settings are right. I'm confident with the set-up and don't feel the need to try more options.
"The test road suffered rain damage during the winter, and it will be interesting to see if the stages were affected in the same way. I enjoy driving in this rally and my disappointment after Jordan has increased my motivation for this event. I'm hungry to win. I have a favourable start position for the first leg, and I need to use it well to be in a position to challenge for a win on the final day," he added.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive the team's third Fiesta RS WRC, the duo nominated to score points for Team Abu Dhabi. This will be the duo's third start in Sardinia and Al Qassimi said: "I'm full of confidence coming off my best result this year in Jordan. However, the stages in Sardinia can be complicated and varied, with a mix of hard and soft surfaces. It will be a challenging event but I hope to keep pushing towards my goal of a top 10 overall finish by the end of the season."
- Michelin's new construction Latitude Cross gravel tyre will be used by the Ford Abu Dhabi drivers. The French company played its 'joker', which allows one new tyre construction during the season, and introduced the new rubber earlier this month for the Jordan Rally. It will be available in Italy in hard compound. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the tyres and each car can carry two spare wheels.
- The team is currently testing in Sardinia ahead. Latvala tested on gravel on Wednesday and Thursday, before Hirvonen takes over tomorrow (Friday). They will each drive a half day on asphalt with a gravel car set-up on Saturday, before Hirvonen completes the session on gravel on Sunday.
- Seven other Fiesta RS WRCs are entered. Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin and Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson are nominated by the M-Sport Stobart Ford team, which has also entered Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor, P-G Andersson / Emil Axelsson and Evgeny Novikov / Stéphane Prévot. Munchi's Ford World Rally Team's Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc and FERM Power Tools World Rally Team's Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte complete the registered championship entries from customer teams.
- The rally marks the third round of the SWRC support series and five privately-entered Ford Fiesta S2000 cars are registered. It is also the second round of the FIA WRC Academy, the sport's new training programme for young drivers, which is supported by Ford. Eighteen crews will compete over the first two days of the rally in identical Fiesta R2 rally cars, which have been supplied by Ford and prepared by M-Sport. Thirty-four of the 64 competitors in the rally are entered in Ford cars.
Organisers have introduced significant changes since the rally's last WRC appearance. The main service park switches to the new cruiser terminal at Olbia's Isola Bianca port, and the town's seafront hosts the start and finish. The opening day journeys midway down the island's west coast to sample new stages near Oristano, with a remote service at Siamanna. The second leg covers more familiar territory in the Sassari region and includes the spectacular jumps in the Monte Lerno stage. The final day moves closer still to the rally base, using roads in the Olbia - Tempio province. The final Power Stage, which offers bonus points to the fastest three drivers, uses former shakedown roads north of the town. Drivers tackle 18 stages covering 339.70km in a route of 1183.52km. More than 122km of the competitive distance is new to the WRC and only 135km was used in 2009.