In Petter Solberg's latest exclusive column on Crash.net, the Ford World Rally Team man looks back on a disappointing outing in Sardinia and sets his sights on making amends in Spain...
Well, what a week that was!
I had high hopes for Rally Italia Sardegna, but as you all know, the event didn't go the way we had wanted. To retire from second position on Friday afternoon was crushingly disappointing. Chris [Patterson – my co-driver] and I felt very comfortable and then suddenly, bang! We were out... The fact we weren't even pushing that much at the time just made it even harder to accept.
The incident with the rock happened less than two kilometres from the end of the penultimate stage of the day – the 14.88km Tergu-Osilo test [SS7] – and it damaged the car's front-left suspension, breaking the cross-member. I'm not sure where the rock had come from as it wasn't in our pacenotes. I can only think it must have been pulled onto the line by another car. The worst thing was that if we had been pushing flat-out rather than at just 90 per cent, we would probably have missed it as the back of the car would have started to turn first. Life is full of cruel little ironies like that at times.
As I said, it was completely unexpected, and returning to the service park afterwards to see Malcolm [Wilson – Ford World Rally Team director] and all the boys was one of the most difficult moments of the season for me. With Jari-Matti [Latvala – my team-mate] going off, too, it was a really tough day for the team, and Malcolm certainly didn't deserve that. I always try to do my best, but on this occasion I got it wrong and we failed.
It was such a shame as things were looking very good. We'd set some very competitive times on the Thursday and the opening loop on Friday – we were second or third-quickest in all but one test – and we were confident of finishing at least second. It's a long, tough rally in Sardinia which is never over until it's over, so we were content to play a waiting game and see what happened. Too many times this year I've gone off when I've been chasing the win, so this time we decided to adopt a different strategy. That's what makes the outcome so bitterly disappointing.
Of course, a lot of drivers had problems on the Friday, and in addition to Jari-Matti and I, Sébastien Loeb and Thierry Neuville also went out, but that is Sardinia for you. The stages are very rough and very tricky, and just the smallest of errors can incur a heavy penalty. But like I say, we were barely even pushing in SS7 and everything felt under control.
After retiring on Friday, we re-joined on Saturday under the Rally 2 rules and in the end took ninth place. We also won the Power Stage for the third time this season, which was something positive. The extra points are always useful too, but to be honest, after the incident on Friday, already I was thinking about Spain and making amends there...
Could I have challenged Mikko Hirvonen for the win but for that clash with the rock in SS7? That's difficult to say, but I think mine and Mikko's pace was quite similar, so it could have been a close battle, that's for sure. The Fiesta RS WRC felt fantastic as always, but we will never really know, will we?
As for Rally Italia Sardegna itself, it was another good event. There was a great atmosphere, with thousands of spectators lining the stages, and the service park was busy, too – we had an autograph session on the Saturday night, and Jari-Matti and I were practically besieged by fans! It's nice to see the switch in date didn't affect numbers – although to be honest, because the temperatures were still so high, it almost felt like summer anyway! The stages were maybe a little bit harder than usual and we had some rain on Friday morning, but even that didn't last very long.
It was good to have a couple of 'proper' stages on Thursday afternoon, but to have just 16km on the final day was a bit of a shame. Okay, it might have been interesting if there had been a really exciting fight for victory or for the podium still going on, but as it was, there were very few battles left by that point which meant it was a bit of a meaningless day for all concerned.
Of course, in the countdown to the event came the shock news that Ford will withdraw from the World Rally Championship at the end of this season, bringing an end to its works programme. This is very sad. Ford has been probably the WRC's greatest supporter and is one of the most successful manufacturers in the championship's history, but I can understand the reasons behind the decision.
M-Sport will, however, fight on, so it isn't all doom and gloom. Indeed, I can see absolutely no reason either why they won't still be able to really take the fight to Citroen and Volkswagen in 2013. The bottom line is that the Fiesta RS WRC is a bloody quick car, and I am confident it can be even quicker next year and there will still be technical support from Ford in 2013, don't forget. M-Sport can definitely fight for the championship next year – there is no doubt about that in my mind.
Returning to 2012, though, we still have one event left and that is of course in Spain. Rally de España is another excellent event and like Sardinia has a fantastic atmosphere. It is a mixed-surface event these days – some people still forget that and assume all the stages are on asphalt, but the opening day isn't. The first leg is probably the most demanding as it features two different stages on gravel and Terra Alta – the mixed-surface stage, which is over 40 kilometres long (all three are run twice). Driving on asphalt and gravel obviously requires two completely different approaches and it will be interesting to see who can adapt the best to that unique challenge.
We will have a test next week as we gear up for the WRC season finale, and the principal objective will be to establish a solid set-up for the mixed-surface first day of the rally. It will be important to get that right as we have to go for the victory. For Ford, for M-Sport, for Malcolm and for all the engineers, mechanics and everybody else in the team, we want to be standing on the top step of the podium on Sunday afternoon. Of course, I personally want to be the driver to do that, and I really want to win to make up for Italy, but whether it is me or Jari-Matti, the most important thing is that a Ford finishes first. We will put everything into that goal.
Until next time, Petter Solberg
To keep tabs on the Ford World Rally Team's progress, simply follow this link: www.wrcford.com