The Italian holiday island of Sardinia marks the fifth stop in the Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team's challenge for the FIA World Rally Championship, but there will be no opportunity to sample the pleasures of the sparkling Emerald Coast as the squad returns to action on the Rally Italia Sardegna in one of the closest campaigns for years.
Malcolm Wilson's team is tied for the lead in the manufacturers' standings after four of the 13 rounds, while Mikko Hirvonen and team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala are among four drivers covered by just eight points in the battle for the drivers' title, as the Italian gravel encounter follows hot on the heels of the Jordan Rally, where Latvala finished just 0.2secs from victory in the WRC's closest-ever finish.
Rally Italia Sardegna returns to the WRC after a year's absence and brings with it new roads for the opening leg close to the island's west coast. Described as 'technical and tricky', they will require pinpoint accuracy in the preparation of pacenotes, with drivers able to make only two slow-speed passes over the stages before driving them flat-out.
Most of the competition is held in the hills and forests south of host city Olbia, and a sandy road surface masks a hard base, with the special stages likely to become rutted during the second pass. The tracks are generally fast and flowing, but are frequently narrow, demanding precision in selecting driving lines, as Hirvonen, second in the championship and a runner-up in Sardinia on four occasions, explains.
"The roads are narrow and there is no defined edge to them, so instead of having a ditch to mark the side of the track, there are bushes, trees or rocks which add extra difficulty," the 30-year old Finn noted, "The surface is sandier than most European gravel rallies, so it's an advantage for me not to be first in the start order for the first time on gravel this season. I struggled with that in Jordan on the first day, while trying to find the right car set-up, but two fastest times on the second day was a confidence boost. The Fiesta feels fantastic on gravel and the speed it has shown on the loose indicates we should be fully competitive everywhere."
Latvala, meanwhile, won the rally in 2009, the second of his four WRC victories, and the 26-year old has recovered from the disappointment of coming so close to adding a fifth to his tally in Jordan.
"At least this is the WRC and I have only had to wait three weeks for the next rally!" he smiled, "If it had been the Olympic Games, I would have had a four-year wait! My disappointment after Jordan has only increased my motivation for this event, and I'm hungry to win. I have a favourable start position for the first leg, and I need to use it well to be in a position to challenge for a win on the final day."
The team tested in Sardinia last week, with Latvala running on gravel on Wednesday and Thursday, before Hirvonen took over on Friday. Each also drove a half-day on asphalt with a gravel car set-up on Saturday, before Hirvonen completed the session on gravel on Sunday.
"I completed about 230km during testing [on Wednesday], and made a lot of changes to the set-up to see what effect they had on the car," Latvala commented, "There were no improvements, which was pleasing, because it confirmed to me that my original settings are right. I'm confident with the set-up and don't feel the need to try more options, but the test road suffered rain damage during the winter, and it will be interesting to see if the stages were affected in the same way."