Ford World Rally Team enters the final gravel round of the world championship season in Italy next week eager to extend its strong run of form. One win and two second places in the last three rallies with the Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car means the squad journeys to Rally Italia Sardegna (18 – 21 October) looking for an explosive finale to its loose surface campaign.
The men in form are Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila, who won the previous loose surface round in Wales last month to add to career-best performances on asphalt in Germany and France. Strong pace from Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson has only been rewarded with third in Wales, but both want to sign off their gravel seasons in style on the Mediterranean holiday island of Sardinia.
And both have what it takes to win this 12th and penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Latvala claimed his second world rally victory here in 2009 while Solberg won the Italian fixture in 2004, his 10th success, when Sardinia hosted the WRC for the first time.
This year’s rally has moved from an early summer date to autumn for the first time since that inaugural 2004 event. However, while morning and evening temperatures will be cooler, daytime mercury levels are still expected to climb above 20°C and dust could hang in the late afternoon air.
The industrial town of Olbia is the rally base, nestled below the sparkling Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast) and Porto Cervo, host to the event finish and exclusive holiday playground to the rich and famous. Most of the competition is held in the hills and forests west and south of the town, where superb scenery provides a captivating backdrop to the action in the speed tests.
The roads have a hard base covered by a sandy surface, which is usually swept away during the first pass to leave ruts and rougher conditions when cars tackle the stages for a second time. They are generally fast but also narrow, and bushes, trees or rocks frequently mark the edge of the road rather than a verge or a ditch.
The exceptions are the new stages near Sassari in leg two, an area in which Latvala tested last year. “They are wider and smoother than the other stages. Their character is more like the roads in Finland, without the big jumps, so there’s more room in which to position the car,” explained the 27-year-old Finn.
“The usual stages have a thin layer of fine gravel on the surface which makes them slippery for the first pass. The team has always been strong in Sardinia and after making a step forward in pace at the last gravel rally in Wales, I’m confident of another strong result,” he added.
Latvala believes the pressure for points has been removed with both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles decided on the previous round in France. “That changes the situation for the final two rallies. Chasing wins has been obviously been a target throughout the season but points finishes no longer have any real meaning, so victories are our only real goal now,” he said.
Despite extending to a fourth day, the rally is one of the shortest WRC encounters since the series began in 1973 with just over 306km of competition. As a true sprint event, Solberg realises the value of ensuring he is in the right place for the first leg.
“The roads are very sandy in some places,” said the 37-year-old Norwegian. “That means Thursday’s qualifying is important because it will be essential to have a good start position for the opening day. If it’s dry it will be better to start further down the order and there just aren’t the kilometres to make up time lost during the first leg because of a bad start position,” he explained.
“The team goes into this rally full of confidence on gravel after the win in Wales. We improved the balance and suspension on the Fiesta before that event and the changes improved performance. But the characteristics of the two rallies are totally different, and the only comparison is that they are held on loose surface roads. However, the roads in Sardinia are fantastic and I will push hard,” he added.
* Michelin’s Latitude Cross gravel tyres will be used by the Ford drivers, and will be available primarily in hard compound. Drivers have 35 hard covers, although 10 soft compound tyres will also be available in case of wet weather. A total of 35 can be used during the event. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the tyres and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Four privately-entered crews will also campaign Fiesta RS WRCs. Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk and Evgeny Novikov / Ilka Minor are nominated by M-Sport Ford World Rally Team. Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson represent Adapta World Rally Team and Martin Prokop / Zdeněk Hrůza crew the Czech Ford National Team car.
Olbia remains the heart of the rally and the Isola Bianca cruiser terminal hosts the main service park. However, much is new with a fourth day of competition, new stages along the island’s north coast, a remote service zone in Sassari and the return of Porto Cervo to host the finish ceremony. Thursday’s opening day comprises two passes over a single stage south of Olbia. The second leg includes two new tests near Sassari, which hosts remote service after the first of two passes through the stages. The third day heads into more traditional territory in the scenic forests south-west of Olbia, before a very short final leg comprising just two runs over a single stage north-west of the town. The second pass forms the Power Stage with bonus points for the fastest three drivers. Competitors journey into the heart of the Costa Smeralda for the finish ceremony in Porto Cervo after tackling 16 stages covering 306.04km in a route of 1241.45km.