Sébastien Ogier, fresh from his maiden World Rally victory in Portugal, will join Peugeot UK's Kris Meeke in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge as the French marque braces itself for a major battle on the gravel stages of Sardinia this weekend.
Ogier will swap his Citroën C4 WRC car for a 207 S2000, and lines up in Peugeot colours alongside Meeke, Bruno Magalhaes, Franz Wittman, Thierry Neuville, Paulo Andreucci and the Turkish lady star Burcu Çetinkaya in what will be the company's biggest line-up this year. The Frenchman is there to help Peugeot defend its manufacturers' title in the teeth of strong opposition from Skoda's Juho Hänninen, Jan Kopecky and Guy Wilks, while reigning IRC champion Meeke needs all the support he can get in a very strong field, especially after recent disappointments in Argentina and the Canary Islands.
"We've simply got to get everything right at Sardinia," Meeke's co-driver Paul Nagle commented, "It's the biggest field of the year so far as, along with the normal suspects, we have P-G Andersson in a Mitsubishi and Andreas Mikkelsen in a Fiesta, but we're looking for a good result this weekend. It's vital to our championship defence."
Ogier was last seen on an IRC event at Monte Carlo in January, when he came agonisingly close to a back-to-back victory on the event, but having the latest addition to the ranks of victors in the WRC is a huge boost to driver Kris Meeke.
"Sébastien is a huge talent - anyone who can beat [Sebastien] Loeb has got to be," the Briton commented, "It's great to have him competing for Peugeot and sharing our area of the service park.
"With Seb on board, we can pose a genuine challenge to the Skodas. We'll have to work very hard indeed to beat them, but try and beat them we will, because that's the best way to score points, not just in the drivers' title race, but also for Peugeot in the manufacturers'."
The rally starts with a ceremony on Friday night, with two full days of action on Saturday and Sunday. Leg one on Saturday consists of six special stages, with two runs through the Monte Grighine stage, located to the east of Oristano and due to be televised live on Eurosport, and two passes of the Gonnosno test to the south-east of the town, split by a remote service in Simaxis. Crews then head north to the classic Monte Lerno stage between the towns of Ozieri and Pattada, eventually reaching Olbia in the island's north-east for end of day service and overnight parc fermé.
Sunday morning's action takes competitors south of Olbia for two runs of the Coiluna stage, split by the first of pass of the Terranova stage and a regroup in Ala dei Sardi. Both Coiluna stages will also be shown live on Eurosport, and the second will be followed by a service halt in Olbia before the two Monte Olia tests and a return to the Terranova stage conclude the event. After a final service in Olbia, crews cross the finishing ramp in the exclusive Porto Cervo resort on Sunday evening.
Peugeot Sport director Olivier Quesnel has said that the addition of Ogier will help to revitalise the French make's bid for a fourth IRC manufacturers' title as, after the opening four rounds, it trails Skoda by 31 points, having taken one victory to the two scored by its rival. However, in terms of stages won, Skoda drivers have been fastest through 28 stages this season, while Peugeot's representatives have triumphed on 25 occasions, proving that the 207 and Skoda's Fabia are evenly matched.
"For the drivers' title, I am not anxious because I am sure Kris can do it again," Quesnel admitted, "The Peugeot is still a good car with a good performance but, for the manufacturers' title, Kris is a little bit alone because Bruno Magalhaes and Thierry Neuville are inexperienced in the IRC. For that reason, I don't have any problem asking Ogier to come and help Peugeot get the title again."