to Sardinia's Emerald Coast
Following three consecutive fixtures outside Europe, BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team steps up the pace in the FIA World Rally Championship next week as the series returns there for the first time since February.
After mastering near 40ºC temperatures with victory in Jordan last month, the heat is turned up metaphorically for the championship leader as Rally d'Italia Sardegna (15 - 18 May) marks the first of a burst of three Mediterranean rallies in five weekends to take the series to the summer halt.
Although this is round six of the 15-event championship, the speed tests on Italy's sun-kissed holiday island mark the first occasion in which Ford's WRC gladiators will taste European gravel this season – it is quickly followed by Greece and Turkey. The industrial town of Olbia, below the shimmering Costa Smeralda coastline in the north-east of the island, provides the rally base while Porto Cervo, one of Europe's most luxurious resorts, hosts the start and finish ceremonies.
A key characteristic of Sardinia's speed tests is their narrowness and drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila know mistakes can be punished as rocks line the edge of the tracks, waiting to batter a car's suspension or attack its tyres. A sandy surface masks a hard base below and roads can be rutted and rocky during the second pass, demanding strength from the team's Focus RS World Rally Cars and durability from Pirelli's Scorpion tyres.
Hirvonen's first win of the season, in Jordan, helped Ford extend its manufacturers' series lead to seven points and took him back to the top of the drivers' table with a five point advantage. Hirvonen finished second here in 2006 and 2007 so knows what it takes to be successful on this challenging event.
"The stages are narrow but fast and although there are rough sections, it's by no means the roughest rally of the season. It's the first hot gravel rally in Europe but we have good knowledge of how Pirelli's tyres work in those conditions from Mexico and Jordan. The roads are probably rougher than either of those events but they're not too harsh on tyres and I have no concerns about that.
"Because I lead the championship, I'm first in the start order on Friday. That's never the best place on a dry gravel rally because the first car cleans the loose stones and those behind have a better driving line. But it's not usually a big disadvantage in Sardinia and I'm not going to worry about that. My focus is finding the right speed on Friday morning because I can't afford to let any driver break clear. At the end of the first day in Jordan four cars were covered by less than 15sec. It could be just as close in Sardinia and I need to be in that group," added the 27-year-old Finn.
Latvala's best result from two starts in Sardinia is ninth last year but the 23-year-old Finn is eager to use his sparkling pace on gravel to better that. "For some drivers Sardinia is not a favourite but the island holds good memories for me," he said. "Before graduating to the WRC I drove two national rallies on the island on similar roads and last year here I led a world rally for the first time. The roads are narrow and fast, but there are many rocks on the inside and outside of bends so I will need to be precise in my driving because it's easy to hit one and damage the suspension.
"My final position on the last round in Jordan was disappointing after challenging for the win for most of the event, but I came away with more positives than negatives. I was happy with my speed and I plan to work on the car's set-up during my test this weekend. I was a little too sideways in Jordan and I want to find a better balance with the car on these tyres," he added.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi will start in Sardinia for the first time, partnered by experienced co-driver Michael Orr. "It’s going to be a completely new terrain so the recce will be important," said 36-year-old Al Qassimi. "The most important thing is the learning. You have to be familiar with any new terrain to go fast – a driver’s first event anywhere is always for experience. I have to learn techniques and develop my pace notes so I’ll pay close attention to what Mikko and Jari-Matti tell me. The BP Ford Abu Dhabi technicians have a lot of experience of this event so I’ll rely on my team to guide me. Just finishing the event will be the most important thing, not my position."
* As part of the sport's new regulations, BP Ford Abu Dhabi will have just one tyre pattern from Pirelli. The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in hard compound only. Because anti-deflation mousse is also outlawed this year, the Scorpion includes reinforced sidewalls to offer increased protection against punctures Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spares.
* Six other Focus RS cars will start the rally – the highest representation so far this season. Gigi Galli / Giovanni Bernacchini and Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin will be nominated for points by the Stobart VK M-Sport team. Munchi's Ford World Rally Team has nominated Federico Villagra / Jorge Pérez Companc and Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud to score. Additional privately-entered Focus RS cars will be driven by Andreas Mikkelsen / Ola Floene and Peter Van Merksteijn / Hans Van Beek.
* The team's three day test in Sardinia ends tomorrow (Saturday). Hirvonen completed the opening two days before Latvala takes over for the last day. Both are concentrating on finalising car set-up.
* Ford Italy is a major partner of the rally. It will provide 20 of Ford's new Kuga cars to the organisers and 50 C-MAX vehicles. The four-wheel drive Kuga is Ford of Europe's first entry into the crossover market and goes on sale across Europe this summer.
* Hirvonen and Lehtinen will attend the Champions League soccer final between Manchester United and Chelsea in Moscow on Wednesday 21 May as guests of Ford of Europe. Ford is a major partner of the Champions League. Sadly for the Finns, both are fans of beaten semi-finalists Liverpool.