Sardinia - Stobart M-Sport Ford - Preview
Stobart M-Sport Ford drivers Matthew Wilson and Henning Solberg are aiming for another points haul as they prepare for round six of the FIA World Rally Championship, Rally d'Italia Sardegna.
Solberg and Wilson are returning
to Europe full of confidence after scoring the best result of the season so far for the team with third and fifth places at Rally Argentina, and now hope to consolidate the squad's excellent position in the manufacturer standings this week-end.
After the high-altitude challenge of Rally Argentina the teams return to sea level for Rally d'Italia Sardegna, based in the port of Olbia on the north-east coast of the Mediterranean island. The 60 entrants will face 347.12kms of tricky, gravel stages in the hills around the stunning Costa Smeralda region including two new challenging stages introduced by organisers this year.
Solberg snatched his first podium of the season in Argentina and with a strong record in Sardinia, including fourth place in 2007, will be looking to stretch his lead over his brother Petter in the drivers' standings with another noteworthy result.
He and co-driver Cato Menkerud have worked hard on achieving a comfortable base setting with their Focus RS on gravel and the recent improvements brought to the car have helped the Norwegian's confidence on this surface.
It will be Wilson's fourth visit to Sardinia, the home of Rally d'Italia since 2004, and with the experience from his previous rallies there to build upon, he is aiming to maintain his momentum from the last event. The fast-progressing Briton, partnered by Scott Martin, has finished in the points in all but one round of the championship so far this season and 2009 has really seen a new level of confidence and pace from the Cumbrian.
Solberg and Wilson's Ford Focus RS WRC cars will be shod with the hard version of the reliable Pirelli Scorpion gravel tyre that stood up so well to the rough conditions in Argentina last month.
This year's ceremonial start has a new home at the town hall in Olbia where the drivers will be introduced to the fans. A big turn-out is again expected as thousands of enthusiastic supporters from all over Europe flock to this fan-friendly rally.
Day One takes the drivers into the hills to the southwest of the city where they will face 130.20kms of fine, sandy gravel stages and narrow tree-lined roads. While the stages, which all featured in last year's edition, will be familiar, the drivers will have to balance speed with the need to avoid the large rocks which litter the roads and pose major problems to the competitors. Tactical driving could come into play as the early starters have to clear the loose surface from the top of the dusty stages.
Two new stages, Sa Linea, which follows a disused railway line and Fiorentini through forest roads in the island, have been introduced to the itinerary for Day Two. These form a three-stage loop with the 29.15km Monte Lerno, the longest stage of the rally, which the crews will pass through twice - providing the fans with a breathtaking spectacle as the drivers take on one of the most famous jumps on the rally calendar.
The landscape changes again on the final day as the stages move north towards the Costa Smeralda, 1960's playground of the Aga Khan, for five short stages with a finish ceremony again taking place in the ultra-exclusive tourist resort of Porto Cervo.
"Now that we have managed to open up a gap to Petter (Solberg) in the championship, it will be important to get more points here, so I'd like to think we could finish inside the top five again. The podium in Argentina was fantastic and it was exactly what we needed and at the right time. It helped so much with our sponsors back home in Norway and they really appreciate the extra media coverage. We have gone back to basics with the gravel set-up and not tried to over complicate things; it worked in Argentina and hopefully it will be the same next week."
"I really like Sardinia and I've got a lot of experience there. It is a tricky event and the pace notes have to be very accurate. There will be lots of stones close to the road which you have to avoid and on the second part of the stages there are often a lot of ruts. There are a couple of new stages this year so it will be interesting to see what those are like. Things went well for us in Argentina and it would be really good to be able to keep that momentum going."
Team Principal Malcolm Wilson:
"After a great result for the team at Rally Argentina with Henning coming third and Matthew fifth we want to build on that in Sardinia. Hopefully Henning will be in a position to challenge for a podium again after his excellent result in Argentina. Matthew will also be aiming for another solid top five finish to continue the great momentum that he has built so far this season. It's a difficult rally and it is imperative to be neat and tidy to avoid the rocks but both Matthew and Henning have been very reliable this season so the aim is for that to continue."