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Ford's FIA World Rally Championship drivers return to competition in Europe next week following last month's Argentine voyage as the 2009 season reaches its midpoint on the Italian holiday island of Sardinia. 

However, there will be little opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of the sparkling Emerald Coast as the high temperatures and tough gravel tracks of Rally d'Italia Sardegna (21 - 24 May) pose a tough challenge to the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team line-up.

Both Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila have good reason to look forward to this sixth round of the 12-event series.  Hirvonen has finished runner-up for the past three seasons, while Latvala claimed third last year and led a world rally for the first time there in 2007.  The record-breaking Ford Focus RS World Rally car is no stranger to success there either, having won in 2007 in the hands of Marcus Grönholm.

The industrial town of Olbia, situated just below the shimmering Costa Smeralda in the north-east of the island, hosts the rally.  But the bulk of the competition is held in the hills and forests to the south, where a sandy road surface masks a hard base beneath.  As a result the roads can become rough during the second pass, demanding strength from the Focus RS WRC and durability from Pirelli's Scorpion tyres.  The tracks are generally fast and flowing, but are frequently narrow, demanding precision in both the preparation of pace notes and driving lines.

"The roads are quite narrow sometimes and although their nature is good, I prefer tracks that have a little more width to them," said 28-year-old Hirvonen.  "There are also many sections with rocks, bushes and trees located on the very edge of the road.  Branches often overhang the road and in corners they can obscure the driver's view of the exit.

"If it's dry then start order will be important.  The surface will be covered with slippery loose gravel and the early starters will clean that away to the benefit of those behind.  I will be third to start on Friday which I think will be a very good position.  I wouldn't like to be first in the order on Saturday.  This could be a rally where it is best to attack from behind as the weekend goes on," he added.

After the previous round in Argentina last month, Hirvonen returned to the grass roots of motor sport to compete in an autocross event in Veteli, 200km north of his home town of Jyväskylä.  He won the front-engined, rear-wheel drive class on the opening day in a self-prepared Ford Escort Mk1, which, according to the rules of the competition, was immediately made available for sale.  The Escort attracted 105 bids!    

This is Latvala's fifth start in Sardinia and the 24-year-old Finn was boosted by a solid performance in Rally Argentina.  "As in Argentina, I will start with the aim of finishing third or fourth.  I was happy with my driving there and hope to repeat that performance in Italy.  Sardinia has been good to me and I enjoy driving there, so maybe my target will change as the rally progresses," he explained.
"Along with Rally Finland and Rally GB, this is one of my favourite rallies.  It's similar to the last European rally we tackled in Portugal, with narrow and fast roads, but without the crests we experienced there.  The roads are hard and compact, with a sandy surface on top.  It's not so easy for the first cars because if it is dry, then the roads will clean a lot.  Sandy roads normally cut up during the second pass but because the base is compact, they don't become so rough here.  Every year the roads become better, so it's clear the organisers repair them well after each rally," he added.

Both drivers are taking part in a comprehensive test on the island which ends on Sunday.  The test was launched by ex-Ford WRC driver Markko Märtin, who drove yesterday (Thursday) and part of today.  "To ensure the team is extracting every possible gramme of efficiency from the Focus RS WRC, we invited Markko to work with Mikko and Jari-Matti on this test," said team director Malcolm Wilson.  "We benefited from Markko's testing expertise when he drove for Ford and adding his skills to that of Mikko and Jari-Matti can only benefit our preparations for this event."  

Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi makes his second Sardinia start in another Focus RS WRC, partnered by the experienced Michael Orr.  The pair finished 16th last year.  "I have a gravel test as soon as I land next week.  I need to get a feeling for the car and get to know it as my friend so I'll have half a day to prepare.  I need to be ready for the roads there, which are challenging and great fun.  I will need to be very precise as they are so narrow.  It's been a great year for me so far.  I've performed well on various terrains and conditions and I hope to continue that in Sardinia," said Al Qassimi.

Team News

* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide BP Ford Abu Dhabi with just the one regulation tyre pattern.  The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in hard compound only.  Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spare wheels.

* Three other Focus RS WRCs will start.  Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud and Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are nominated by the Stobart VK M-Sport squad, while Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc are nominated by the Munchi's Ford team.  The rally also marks the second round of the Fiesta SportingTrophy International and five crews are entered.

* Hirvonen and Lehtinen will attend the Champions League soccer final between Manchester United and Barcelona in Rome on Wednesday 27 May as guests of Ford of Europe.  Ford is a major partner of the Champions League.  Sadly for the Finns, both are fans of beaten semi-finalists Liverpool.

Rally Route

The base remains in Olbia with a single service park in the town's port.  The route is similar to 2008 although the second day includes two new stages, one of which traces the route of a disused railway line, and the final leg includes a test not used since 2006.  Thursday's ceremonial start switches to the centre of Olbia, with the opening day's action south of the town in the Olbia - Tempio province.  The second leg moves further inland to the Sassari region and includes the spectacular jumps in the Monte Lerno stage.  The final day journeys to the north of the Olbia - Tempio province, and also includes a test in the extreme north of the island, close to the stunning Costa Smeralda coastline.  The exclusive resort of Porto Cervo hosts the finish after 17 stages, covering 347.12km in a route of 1263.20km.

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