Round six of the FIA World Rally Championship sees the teams travel to the peaceful and tranquil setting of Sardinia for Rally Italia, but when the WRC comes to town expect nothing tranquil.
The rally is based in the beautiful setting of Alghero. The town known as ‘Little Barcelona’ replaces Olbia as the Service Park venue for the first time since 2004.
Much of Rally Italy remains unchanged, with just 75.65 of the 364.92 kilometres different to last year. The itinerary consists of 17 special stages, the final ‘Cala Flumini’ stage also forms the power stage, with bonus points towards the Drivers’ and Co-Drivers’ Championship available for the top three. The stage will be held on the Sunday, and will be broadcast live on TV.
The real highlight or Rally Italy though is the famous ‘Micky’s jump’ on the Monte Lerno stage. The jump takes places after a right-hander and sees the cars take to the air before landing hard on a downslope. The road quite literally drops away on the side where the cars meet the road, this could spell disaster if a driver gets the jump wrong.
Two drivers in particular who will be hoping they don’t make any mistakes in Italy are Championship contenders and Volkswagen team-mates Sébastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala. Ogier and Latvala have been told by Volkswagen team bosses: “May the best man win”. Meaning they are free to battle it out in Italy, and for the rest of the season.
The pair are separated by only 24 points going into Rally Italy, and after Latvala’s dominating performance at Rally Argentina, Ogier will be keen to hit back.
“After the extremely rough and muddy stages in Argentina, I am really looking forward to the rally on Sardinia,” said the Championship leader. “The quick gravel routes are far better suited to my driving style. As first out onto the route on Friday, it ma be difficult for Julien and me on the loose sand, but I still think I have a good chance of winning.”
Ogier is aware of the challenge his team-mate presents to him and is expecting a tough fight in Sardinia. “As of late, my toughest rival will be my team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala. And I can promise Jari-Matti and the fans: it will definitely be a spectacular and exciting duel.”
Latvala arrives in Italy full of confidence, and hopes he can produce another top performance on the tight Sardinian roads. “There are a few rallies on the WRC calendar, to which I particularly look forward to – and the Rally Italy is one of them.”
“The surface is a little like Rally Portugal – the surface is a little more slippery though, because the top layer is very sandy. The streets are pretty narrow and the trees and rocks can be very close. Despite this, it doesn’t take long to find a rhythm on the special stages.”
“After the win in Argentina, I obviously travel to Italy full of confidence and with my sights set on challenging for another victory. My goal is to finish in the top three.”
Third VW driver Andreas Mikkelsen currently sits fourth in the championship, 40 points adrift of Latvala. The Norwegian arrives in Italy with his new/former co-driver Ola Fløene.
“It is great to have Ola back in the cockpit,” said Mikkelsen. “We have both known each other for such a long time, and have only been apart for a short time. We will not change anything with regards to pace notes – apart from the fact they will now be in Norwegian again, rather than English.”
VW’s closest rival at the moment is the Citroen of Mads Ostberg. The Norwegian is currently level on points with his fellow countryman Mikkelesen, but hopes his vast experience of Sardinia can shine through.
“I have done pretty well at this event, over the years,” emphasized Ostberg. “I have good memories of racing here. The route is very technical and the grip level varies on the different runs. It’s important to take good pace notes here. You have to be able to adapt your pace when conditions on the stages change.”
Kris Meeke has had an up and down season so far. Meeke struggled at certain rallies where he hasn’t competed in the past but showed at Rally Argentina that a little bit of experience can go a long way. Luckily for Meeke he has had four starts in Sardinia between 2004 and 2011 in the junior WRC and IRC, so will be using this knowledge to his advantage.
“It’s a typically Mediterranean round. The roads are narrow, fast, slippery and littered with big rocks! We’ll also have to see what the new sections have in store for us – we’ll be starting from scratch in recce.”
“We were very much on the pace during day one in Argentina. I hope we’ll hav the same speed in Sardinia. I have to keep this positive momentum going into Rally Poland so that I can head into the second half of the season, where I know the events better, full of confidence!”
Robert Kubica finished sixth in Rally Argentina after adopting a new cautious approach which helped him make it to the finish of a rally for the first time since his step up from WRC2. And the former Formula One driver says he will tread carefully again in Sardinia, to focus on finishing.
“Like all of the gravel events in the WRC, this is a difficult rally so in that respect my approach won’t be too different from the previous outing in Argentina.”
“Of course Sardinia is a rally that I got to know a bit in WRC2 last year – I will just try to maximise my chances of finishing the rally, which means minimising any mistakes.”
Hyundai will be fielding three cars at Rally Italy. New Zealand driver Hayden Paddon will make his debut for the team with the first round of a seven-rally campaign. Paddon will join Thierry Neuville who is currently seventh in the standings, and Juho Hänninen, who previously won in Sardinia in 2010 in the IRC.
Paddon, like Kubica, will be concentrating on making it to the end in his first outing. “It’s an incredible opportunity and i’ll work very hard to make the most of it. This will be my first time in Sardinia so we will focus on getting to the finish and then, show progression on each event throughout the season.”
M-Sport World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Elfyn Evans sit fifth and eighth respectively in the standings, but this could well improve post-Italy. Hirvonen wants to cut out any silly mistakes so the team can improve and show their pace.
“This is an event that I enjoy so I hope we can secure another strong result. I know that we have the pace; we just need to ensure that we avoid any mistakes and pull everything together.”
The Checkered Flag will have daily updates from Rally Italia, so make sure you come back to stay up to date with the action.