PHOTO: Who will take the winner’s dive into Alghero harbour this year? (Hyundai pic)
AS the FIA World Rally Championship reaches the halfway point in Italy this week, it would take a brave person to confidently predict the destiny of the drivers’ crown.
Four different winners from the opening four rounds highlighted the unpredictability of the most open title battle in years. As the series reaches round seven at Rally Italia Sardegna, starting tonight local time, most money would be on one of the top four drivers in the standings.
After his Vodafone Rally de Portugal victory last month, championship leader Sébastien Ogie reckoned that he, Thierry Neuville, Jari-Matti Latvala and Ott Tänak remained in contention with seven rounds to go.
Ogier and Neuville are the only drivers with two wins. Master tactician Ogier has a 22-point advantage after success in Monte-Carlo and Portugal, while Neuville enjoyed the champagne in Corsica and Argentina. Latvala won in Sweden and Meeke in Mexico.
Ogier and Neuville arrive in Sardinia with solid claims to be the first to score three victories in a new-generation car. Ogier won in 2015, his third in a row on the island, while Neuville enjoyed the traditional victory leap into Alghero Harbour 12 months ago.
With temperatures expected to soar to around 30°C, the championship’s Italian counter is incredibly demanding for drivers, cars and tyres.
Jacques Morelli, manager of Michelin’s WRC programme said: “I think it’s fair to say that Sardinia is the hardest round of the calendar for the crews and their cars, but recent testing indicates that our tyres will stand up to the ordeal.”
But Ogier likes the challenge.
“We’ll face an element of cleaning on the opening day, but we’ve got a good track record in Sardinia and I’ve learned to enjoy these demanding stages,” he said.
“It’s not the easiest of events. You need to keep a margin and be focused from start to finish. Tyre preservation can also prove really important and that could be particularly significant on Saturday with two 70km loops.”
Neuville’s confidence is high after following two straight wins in his Hyundai i20 Coupe with second in Portugal to banish memories of a troubled start to the year.
But the Belgian added: “This is a technical event that we cannot take for granted. The roads are very hard and dry which can be tough on the cars, especially the tyres.
“Therefore, tyre choice can be crucial depending on road position and will be something we watch closely.”
Other factors to watch in Sardinia will be the debut appearance of Andreas Mikkelsen in a factory Citroën C3 and the start of Hayden Paddon’s new permanent relationship for British co-driver Seb Marshall, following the retirement through injury of John Kennard.