Rally Sardinia: Round seven preview

The Rally d'Italia-Sardegna (18 - 21 May) provides the first opportunity for the BP-Ford World Rally Team to showcase the new generation Focus RS World Rally Car on a gravel event in Europe. Although the FIA World Rally Championship season is ...

The Rally d'Italia-Sardegna (18 - 21 May) provides the first opportunity for the BP-Ford World Rally Team to showcase the new generation Focus RS World Rally Car on a gravel event in Europe. Although the FIA World Rally Championship season is nearing the halfway point, with the Sardinia event being round seven of 16, remarkably this is the first European dirt rally of the campaign and the first of six in the series.

The rally is based in the industrial town of Olbia, in the north of the island, and starts and finishes in Porto Cervo, one of Europe's most exclusive resorts. The gravel special stages contain a mix of narrow, twisty roads and fast and flowing tracks that put the event into the medium-fast category. A fine sandy surface masks a hard base beneath and the early starters will sweep the loose gravel clear to leave a cleaner driving line for those behind.

The route has changed considerably with four brand new stages. Fifty-two per cent of the competitive distance is new as organisers have dropped some of the narrowest and most twisty tracks in favour of more flowing roads. In addition the single service park returns to the port area in Olbia at Cala Saccaia while Thursday's ceremonial start moves back to the exclusive coastal town of Porto Cervo. The opening day on the gravel roads of the Nuoro area contains one new stage while Saturday's leg, a mix of tests used in 2004 and 2005, includes the long Monte Cerno stage and the spectacular 'camel humps' jump. The final leg north of Olbia includes two new tests in the Gallura area which were formerly used on the Costa Smeralda Rally. All three legs comprise three stages used twice and the 18 tests cover 344.94km in a route of 1140.18km.

The test sessions in Sardinia were very successful for Red Bull Skoda up until Monday afternoon. On Saturday, Harri Rovanpera spent a day at the wheel of the Fabia WRC, on Sunday it was Andreas Aigner's turn. The team was able to test a lot of different suspension settings and tyres on both days. For Harri Rovanpera the first day was very positive as well, but on Monday the Finn slid off the road in one of the final test runs and rolled the Fabia WRC test car: "I came too close to the outside, there was plenty of loose gravel but unfortunately also a rock which destroyed the rim. Then the car rolled rather violently, thank goodness I suffered no injuries. Risto complained about a slight headache. Except for this incident our test was very informative, too." The test sessions in Sardinia were very successful for Red Bull Skoda up until Monday afternoon. On Saturday, Harri Rovanpera spent a day at the wheel of the Fabia WRC, on Sunday it was Andreas Aigner's turn. The team was able to test a lot of different suspension settings and tyres on both days.

Kronos Total Citroen

After the first six rounds of the 2006 FIA WRC, Sebastien Loeb, Daniel Elena and the Kronos Total Citroen team stand in first place in both Drivers' and Manufacturers' championships thanks to four consecutive wins. To defend these positions and to try to extend its winning streak, the Belgian team enters in Sardinia two 2006 specifications Xsara WRCs for Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Xevi Pons/Carlos Del Barrio.

Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena: Winner in 2005 and current leader of the Championship, Sebastien Loeb will start first on the road on Friday and will have to face the inevitable 'road sweeping' throughout the entire first loop comprising 65 competitive kilometres. "Usual strategy" has planned Seb . "And to be honest I only have one which is to start as fast as possible. After the first group of stages and on Friday night, we will see where we stand and what's possible to try. In any case, I hope a fight for a win will still be possible--"

Xavier Pons/Carlos Del Barrio: Xavier Pons has experienced various misfortunes over the past two gravel rounds. Having retired very early on a technical problem in Mexico, he had to stop during the first leg in Argentina after hitting something. Fortunately and thanks to the 'superally' regulations, he was able to compete in the next two legs and won his first world rally stage in difficult conditions. "For Xevi, the benefits were double" explained team principal Marc Van Dalen . "He could pile up kilometres on gravel and has set a fastest time, which will boost his confidence. He counts two participations in Sardinia and has also taken part in the pre-event tests-- In a word, all the conditions are gathered for him to achieve a good result, important for him and for the team in the Manufacturers' championship."

MV-Peugeot Norway

The OMV Peugeot Norway World Rally Team is good and ready for the next assignment in the FIA World Rally Championship, the "Rally d'Italia Sardegna". Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor (Aut) and Henning Solberg/Cato Menkerud (Nor) count on their excellence at drifting for the first gravel run on European terrain. Their goal is to not simply keep their positions in the World Championship (Stohl 4., Solberg 9.) but to improve them. The two OMV teams will furthermore try their all to climb up in the manufacture ranking, where they maintain a superior lead at the M2-teams and are also within striking distance to the M2-teams.

Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor: "Sardinia is definitely not my favourite rally. It is a typical gravel rally but typically difficult. The roads are very narrow and very hard." Last year Stohl had been handicapped by food poisoning. He only completed part of the recce and finally finished in ninth overall place. But following fourth place in Argentina Stohl is sure that he should be able to reach the podium in Italy this year, as well. Stohl: "We were very close in Argentina. As far as speed is concerned we are up to it - which the two special stage best-times proved once more."


However, the Focus RS WRC has already shown its credentials on gravel rallies in Mexico and Argentina. Both Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen held top three places on the opening day in Mexico. And Gronholm led for much of the first leg in Argentina last month, going on to win more speed tests than any other driver. Although the Mediterranean holiday island is a relative newcomer to the championship (this is the rally's third year in the WRC), the characteristics of the Sardinian roads are well known by the BP-Ford drivers. Gronholm and Hirvonen competed there in 2004 and 2005 and both tested widely in two separate sessions there during the past six weeks.

Marcus Gronholm/Timo Rautiainen: Thirty-eight-year-old Gronholm, who lies second in the drivers' championship, finished third in Sardinia last year. "The rally has a mix of everything," he said. "Some of the stages are quite tight while others are more open and faster. Quite a lot of the competitive distance is new for this year and I think these roads will be faster than the ones that have been dropped. It's not one of my favourite rallies but neither is it one that I really dislike. "It's important to score good points here and my target is clear - to win. The car has shown it is fast on gravel but my mistake in Mexico and a problem in Argentina meant that I didn't score the points I feel we deserved. But it's also important to remember that this is still a new car and we continue to fine-tune it as the season progresses. This will be the first time in competition in Sardinia with this Focus RS and I'm sure we will learn more about it during the event," added the Finn.

Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen: Hirvonen surprised many in Sardinia last year by taking the challenge to world champion Sebastien Loeb in a privately-entered Focus RS on the opening leg - which he ended in third. "Last year was good for me until I made a mistake on the second day," said the 25-year-old Finn. "I had a good start position which meant the roads had been cleaned of gravel by the time I started the stages. I have a good start position again this year and I hope this will give me an advantage on the opening morning. I prefer the wider roads because when it's narrow and there are bushes and rocks close to the edge of the road, it's difficult to make pace notes. The temptation is to put as much as possible into the notes but then I find that there is too much in there. "The tyres will be important. I think it's going to be hot and the heat and hard roads mean that endurance will be vital. We have some new tyres available which will be good. It's not easy for BFGoodrich to improve its tyres because they are already very good, but I was pleased with these during the tests. They seem faster in every area," he added.

!@Stobart VK M-Sport Ford

Youngest-ever WRC driver points scorer Matthew Wilson and the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team head to Sardinia this coming weekend for the sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship, Rally d'Italia Sardegna, with the aim of beating their last result of two cars in the top ten. Rally Argentina saw 19 year-old Cumbrian Wilson become the youngest driver to score a WRC driver point and also become the youngest driver to set the fastest time on a WRC stage. Wilson finished in eighth place in the overall standings, just pipping team-mate Luis Perez Companc to the position in the final stage of the event. The Italian round of the WRC presents a similiarly natured gravel challenge to Argentina and the Stobart WRC team is boosted by 33% for this event as Wilson and co-driver Michael Orr are joined not only by Companc, but also by the Finnish crew of Kosti Katajamaki and Timo Alanne. Katajamaki drove with the team in February in Uddeholm Rally Sweden, finishing sixth in the overall standings so a dream result for the squad would be three Stobart Ford Focus RS WRCs in the top ten

Matthew Wilson/Michael Orr: "I've never been to Sardinia before. I was meant to be there last year but I ended up watching the result from my hospital bed as it was a week after my big accident in Rally of Wales. I've never seen the stages before in person, only on tele but we should get a good idea on the recce."

Luis Perez Companc/Jose-Maria Volta: "I am looking forward to Sardinia as I am more confident with the car, every time I drive it I am learning more. Gravel is my favourite surface so it should be good for me."

Kosti Katajamaki/Timo Alanne: "It seems like a long time since the Swedish Rally. It will be my third time in Rally Sardinia but the stages this year are totally different. I've been busy doing work for my sponsors and some driving in a Group N car which is very different from the Focus. I'm very happy to be driving in Sardinia and I'll be driving as fast as possible."

555 Subaru

The Subaru World Rally Team will enter two Impreza WRC2006s in Rally d'Italia Sardegna. One car will be driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) with the other by Chris Atkinson (co-driven by Glenn Macneall). Subaru has a good record in Sardinia. In 1994 Piero Liatti scored the Group A Impreza's first international victory on the Costa Smeralda Rally, a round of the Italian and European championships at the time. In 2004 Petter Solberg led Rally Sardinia from start to finish to take his sixth career win. He finished second on the event in 2005. Chris Atkinson starts his second Sardinian event. Last year he climbed as high as third overall, winning one stage.

Petter Solberg/Phil Mills: "I was very happy with my drive in Argentina. Okay, things could have been even better but I think we're getting there. We tested in Greece last week and we're making small steps in performance, plus the reliability is improving a lot. We have to prove now that when everything goes well, we can win. This is what the whole team wants, everybody. We need to win."

Chris Atkinson/Glen MacNeall: "Sardinia is a challenge as it's very technical and narrow and you have to drive cleanly to do well here. It's a good drivers' rally and I really enjoy it. Over half the route is new this year so a lot will depend on making good pace notes on the recce. My goal is a top five result. We set some good stage times last year and were running as high as third at one point, so there's no reason why we can't achieve this target."

Red Bull-Skoda Team

After quite a long absence - the Argentinian round was not entered - the season of Red Bull Skoda, run by BRR, continues next week with its fifth WRC event in Sardinia. For both drivers it will be the first gravel rally of the year. Accordingly, the team's preparations are intense. Starting this Saturday, vigorous on-site test runs are scheduled up to and including Monday to work out the best suspension settings.

Harri Rovanpera/Risto Pietilainen: Harri Rovanpera is rated as one of the best gravel specialists in the entire field and has already won Rally Sardinia back in 2003 when it was still an European Championship event: "I love this rally, it's extremely difficult and very demanding. If we're able to test successfully, we should be able to achieve a good result in the end. In my 108th WRC start, my routine and experience will surely be of help here."

Andreas Aigner/Timo Gottschalk: For Andreas Aigner, his first ever gravel rally at the wheel of a WRC implies another huge challenge: "I had quite a good feeling in the last tarmac rallies, now I need to adjust and learn to drive properly on gravel. The test days will help me with that for sure. Apart from that I'm totally motivated, and I hope to at least keep the immediate competition at bay. In addition Harri will be able to give me some good advice."


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About this article
Series WRC
Drivers Harri Rovanpera , Marcus Gronholm , Petter Solberg , Sébastien Loeb , Timo Rautiainen , Manfred Stohl , Mikko Hirvonen , Risto Pietilainen , Piero Liatti , Kosti Katajamaki , Jarmo Lehtinen , Henning Solberg , Ilka Minor , Xavier Pons , Matthew Wilson , Michael Orr , Chris Atkinson , Andreas Aigner , Timo Gottschalk , Timo Alanne
Teams Citroën World Rally Team , M-Sport