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Challenges come thick and fast in the World Rally Championship. With the dust still settling on a dramatic climax to the previous round in Jordan, the all-action series returns to Europe and the punishing gravel tracks of Sardinia.

Two years after the picturesque Italian Mediterranean island last hosted the WRC, the Rally d’Italia Sardegna starting tomorrow remains a huge test for both car and crew.

Rally d’Italia Sardegna, round five of the 2011 WRC, will include 18 special stages over a competitive distance of 340 kilometres. The permanent service park will be located in the port of Olbia.

A record 20 new-generation World Rally Cars, including five MINI John Cooper Works WRCs, will compete in Sardinia.

As with most gravel rallies, road position is likely have a major bearing on the result due to the effect of cleaning the course of loose gravel and the formation of hanging dust clouds.

Jari-Matti Latvala’s victory for Ford in 2009 owed much to the delays that drivers behind him suffered while fighting through plumes of dust.

This year Citroen star Sebastien Loeb will be tasked with clearing the road on the first day, making the prospect for a fight back on days two and three very real.

The seven-time World Champion has won the event three times and arrives in Sardinia two points clear in the drivers’ standings after finishing third in Jordan.

Loeb’s Citroen teammate Sebastien Ogier claimed outright honours over Latvala in Jordan by the smallest margin in WRC history.
 
Ogier has won the last two rounds and his starting position of third on the road on Friday behind Ford driver Mikko Hirvonen could give him an edge as he seeks a fifth career win.

Latvala has always been rapid on the island’s demanding gravel stages. His starting position of fourth will bolster his confidence while his 0.2-second defeat in Jordan will serve as extra motivation to claim his first victory of 2011.

Teammate Hirvonen triumphed on the season-opening Rally Sweden in February, but the Finn has yet to repeat that early high in his Fiesta. He slipped to second behind Loeb in the drivers’ table in Jordan.

Petter Solberg has ground to make up after a frustrating start to 2011. The Norwegian began the season as a title contender in his Citroen DS3 WRC but bad luck and a mistake in Jordan have kept him off the podium.

Mads Ostberg, Matthew Wilson, Henning Solberg, PG Anderson, Evgeny Novikov, Federico Village, Khalid Al Qassimi, Dennis Kuipers and father-and-son Peter van Merksteijn Sr and Jr complete a formidable Ford line-up.

The eagerly-anticipated Mini effort debuts in Sardinia with Kris Meeke and Dani Sordo piloting two factory-entered John Cooper Works WRCs.

Three other Minis will appear in the hands of Portugal’s Armindo Araujo, Brazil World Rally Team’s Daniel Oliveira and Swede Patrik Flodin.

As well as staging the battle for overall WRC honours, Sardinia hosts the second event for the new FIA WRC Academy.

The Academy candidates, all driving identical Ford Fiestas, include young Australians Brendan Reeves and Molly Taylor.

They will start with the rest of the field on Thursday night, but conclude a shortened course on Saturday.

The stars and cars of the WRC head to the New South Wales Coffs Coast for Rally Australia, round 10, on 8-11 September.
 
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