After the rigours of the Jordanian deserts, the World Rally Championship will have little respite from the heat this week as its heads to the island of Sardinia, though at least the air will be less dry and more bearable.

The sixth round of the WRC represents a return to Europe after a string of three long-haul events in a row.

Itself the first of a back-to-back trio of Mediterranean events, it heralds the start of the most demanding section of the season with three events in just five weeks before the summer break.

The event starts with a ceremonial start in the exclusive resort of Porto Cervo, 30 kilometres to the north of the service park, and consists of 17 stages stretching 354 competitive kilometres across the northern provinces of Olbia, Sassari and Nuoro. Whilst many of the planned routes are very similar to those used in previous years, there have been several significant changes to pit competitors against new challenges.

A key characteristic of Sardinia's speed tests is their narrowness and drivers 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.

Special notes:

Sardinia lies in the Mediterranean sea between Spain and Italy, just 12 kilometres from the coast of Corsica, itself the scene for a World Rally encounter later in the season. As per previous years, the rally is based in the northern tip of the island, in the industrial port of Olbia on the Costa Smeralda coast.

The soft and almost sandy gravel roads wind through a combination of unspoiled green mountainsides that contrast with the sometime dusty and rocky routes of the lower regions.

The traction and braking stability of the cars will be really tested by the loose surfaces that can cause the cars to wander as the road beneath them shifts. Eighty per cent of the local area is hilly, and while more rolling than mountainous, the stages steadily undulate.

In the typically lush Italian hills, temperatures are expected to be upwards of 20 degrees Celsius, but routes can quickly become dampened by the ever-present chance of unexpected storms.

The stages are very flowing and technical, meaning it is vital that crews get into a good rhythm from the outset in order to attack fully. Crews running first on the road will clean the loose surface to the benefit of those behind them, but as the roads deteriorate and become rutted by the second passes, it will actually favour the front-runners.

FIA World Rally Championship news:

Mikko Hirvonen re-took the lead in the race for the 2008 drivers' title following his victory on the Jordan Rally at the end of last month.

Sebastien Loeb meanwhile dropped back down to second, after failing to score after that incident on day 2 with Conrad Rautenbach. Chris Atkinson remained third, although he is now just 2 points adrift of the Frenchman and 7 off Hirvonen.

In the Manufacturers' championship the BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT remains top, having increased its tally to 57 points and extended the gap to the Citroen Total WRT, from 3 points to 7.

There have been a number of developments since the last round, with the Stobart team confirming that Francois Duval will return to the fold for the asphalt events in Germany, Spain and France. It has also been reported by Autosport that Citroen may quit the sport at the end of 2009, while Suzuki is rumoured to be considering a sabbatical at the end of this year.

News from the Manufacturers' teams:

Citroen Total WRT:

[Sebastien Loeb, car #1 and Daniel Sordo, car #2]

Loeb out to bridge gap.

Sebastien Loeb will be determined to get a top result on the Rally d'Italia Sardegna after failing to score on the last event. Loeb was leading by over 30 seconds on day two in Jordan, when he was forced out following a head-on collision with Conrad Rautenbach's similar C4 WRC car on a road section leading to and from SS11.

Although he re-started on the final day and got to the finish, he was unable to score drivers' points, and is now five points behind Mikko Hirvonen.

Seb will now want to cut that gap and well Sardinia has been good to him in the past, and he has won it twice, in 2005 and 2006, last season he threw away what would have been his third win in a row, when he went off on the final day handing the victory to Marcus Gronholm.

The Frenchman is looking forward though, not back: "I'm not one to dwell on the past and last year's incident is well and truly behind us," he confirmed. "This is a particularly selective rally which I enjoy very much, but this year we will need to see how our tyres perform without run-flat mousse."

"Our misadventure in Jordan is behind us, too," added the four-time world champion.

"We were on top and looking good to extend our lead in the championship, and here we are now with a five-point deficit to make up.

"We will be looking to start bridging that gap in Sardinia and I am encouraged by the C4's competitiveness over a broad variety of terrains, as well as by the work put in to adapt it to its tyres."

Dani Sordo meanwhile is after a third podium finish in succession. Sordo spent much of the fifth round in the World Rally Championship in the lead and he will be keen to emphasise now that he is a potential winner on all types of surfaces - not just on asphalt.

"Leading is nice but not always easy," said Dani. "I had an excellent feeling with my car and the times I posted were big confidence boosters.

"Although I believe I still lack experience when it comes to finishing, adapting the way I drive and regarding how best to approach running first on the road, Jordan was positive on those fronts, too."

Sordo has done the event in Sardinia three times to date and while he was third in both 2007 and 2006 and took the Junior WRC win in 2005, he doesn't particularly like the Olbia-based round.

"It's not my favourite. I think it will be tricky and tyres promise to play a major role," he concluded.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT:

[Mikko Hirvonen, car #3 and Jari-Matti Latvala, car #4 and Khalid Al Qassimi, car #14]

Hirvonen has a plan.

Mikko Hirvonen has predicted that it could be just as close on the Rally d'Italia Sardegna this coming weekend as it was on the last round.

Mikko's first win of the season in Jordan took him back to the top of the drivers' championship and while Hirvonen will have to run first on the road in Olbia on day one, the Finn doesn't think it will hamper his charge too much.

"I'm first in the start order on Friday because I lead the championship," the 27-year-old explained. "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 15 seconds. It could be just as close in Sardinia and I need to be in that group."

Hirvonen finished second in Sardinia both in 2006 and 2007 and so he is keen to go one better this Sunday.

"I'd like to repeat my successful outcome at the Rally of Jordon," he added. "Rally d'Italia Sardegna is one of my favourite rallies and after finishing in second place last year, this year I want to win and be on the top of the podium!"

Jari-Matti Latvala meanwhile is hoping he will have a better balance this time out. Jari had to settle for a seventh place finish in Jordan after he hit a rock on the final day and damaged his left rear suspension - losing him around ten minutes.

Despite being in contention for the win until that incident though, he still wasn't totally happy with the set-up on his Focus RS WRC07 and he was looking to tweak it ahead of this event.

"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 the pre-event test," he noted.

"I was a little too sideways in Jordan and I want to find a better balance with the car on these tyres."

STOP PRESS: spoke exclusively to Mikko Hirvonen ahead of the Rally d'Italia. To hear the interview in full: CLICK HERE

Subaru WRT:

[Petter Solberg, car #5 and Chris Atkinson, car #6]

Petter making no predictions; Atkinson not thinking about podium.

Petter Solberg will want to stop the 'rot' this weekend in Sardinia and put an end to his recent run of misfortune that has dogged him on the last three rounds in Mexico, Argentina and Jordan.

Petter retired for the second event in succession at the end of last month and currently is only joint seventh in the drivers' championship - equal with his brother Henning, both having scored 9 points.

'Hollywood' has done the Rally d'Italia Sardegna every year since it joined the WRC in 2004 and while he won the first event and was second in 2005, he didn't do quite so well in 2006 and 2007, finishing ninth and fifth respectively.

"Sardinia is very tough as the surface is very soft and there are lots of ruts on the second passes. We've won there before, and I will go there pushing hard, but it is never an easy rally, so we will just see," he said cautiously.

"The team has been working hard since Jordan so I hope we will be able to go well there."

Chris Atkinson meanwhile is also tight lipped on what he might achieve on round six, even though he has a tremendous season so far.

Indeed despite having taken four podium finishes from five events this year, Chris insisted he will just be focusing on doing what he can again this weekend - a strategy that to date has served him well, as he bides his time ahead of the introduction of the new Impreza WRC 2008.

Although the Banbury-based outfit has still not set a date for the debut of its new car, Atkinson and Petter both had their first familiarisations run aboard the all-new Impreza recently and work is said to be 'progressing well' with further information due to follow in the 'coming weeks', with some reports noting its introduction might happen before the summer break.

"It's important to drive smoothly and without mistakes in Sardinia as the roads are very technical and narrow but it's a rally I enjoy," said Chris. "It's my fourth year here, and my second with St?phane [Prevot - my co-driver], so I hope we can have a good event and run competitively.

"I'm not thinking about another podium finish, but just concentrating on our pace and fighting as high up as we can."

For more see Part 2 of our preview for the Rally d'Italia Sardegna.


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