The Intercontinental Rally Challenge makes its first visit to Sardinia this week for round five of the 12-event series. After switching to asphalt for Rally Islas Canarias in late April, crews return to gravel for the island-based contest, which previously ran as part of the World Rally Championship before joining the IRC for 2010.

Following its groundbreaking coverage of Rallye Automobile Monte-Carlo in January, Eurosport will show four stages of the Olbia-based event as they happen. With upwards of 10 drivers capable of challenging for victory, viewers of Europe's largest television sports channel, plus those fans watching on the stages, are braced for an epic battle for glory.

While part of the route used for the WRC qualifier remains, organisers have made several changes to the itinerary, including a ceremonial start in the capital Cagliari, in the south of the island, and new stages based around the town of Oristano to the west.

Leg one consists of six special stages. There will be two runs through the Monte Grighine stage, located to the east of Oristano and televised live on Eurosport, and two passes of the Gonnosno test to the south-east of the town, split by a remote service in Simaxis. Crews then head north to the classic Monte Lerno stage between the towns of Ozieri and Pattada, eventually reaching Olbia in the island's north-east for end of day service and overnight parc ferme.

Sunday morning's action takes competitors south of Olbia for two runs of the Coiluna stage split by the first of pass of the Terranova stage and a regroup in Ala dei Sardi. Both Coiluna stages will be shown live on Eurosport. The second is followed by a service halt in Olbia before the two Monte Olia tests and a return to the Terranova stage. After a final service in Olbia, crews cross the finishing ramp in the exclusive Porto Cervo resort on Sunday evening.

The stages in Sardinia are characterised by their challenging and varied nature. Although they are predominantly fast and narrow, the terrain is a mixture of flat open areas and undulating tracks through woodland with water splashes and spectacular jumps thrown in for good measure. Ordinarily the surface is hard with rock-strewn sections commonplace, while ruts will often form after the first pass. Some parts of the route are on softer ground, which has been damaged by recent heavy rainfall and has required the organisers to carry out essential repair work.

As with most gravel rallies, road position can have a major bearing on the result due to the effect of cleaning the course of loose-surface gravel. In a change to the format used on other rounds of the IRC, organisers in Sardinia will run the top ten crews in reverse order of their competition numbers for Saturday's opening leg in two-minute intervals. The remainder of the field will start in number order, albeit with a one-minute gap. On Sunday, the leading ten runners will start in reverse order in two-minute intervals, with the remaining competitors running in rally order separated by one-minute gaps.

THE COMPETITORS

Juho Hanninen has opened up a seven-point lead in the drivers' table following his run to second place on Rally Islas Canarias last month. He will start Rally d'Italia-Sardegna on the back of competing on Portugal's round of the World Rally Championship, which he used to acclimatise to driving on gravel again. The Finn won the IRC's last gravel round, taking his Skoda Fabia S2000 to victory on Rally Argentina in March and has established a reputation as a loose-surface specialist.

Jan Kopecky's first place last time out in Gran Canaria promoted the Czech to joint second with Guy Wilks in the championship standings. Like team-mate Hanninen, Kopecký has rallied in Sardinia before but admitted after round two of the IRC in Brazil, where he finished a distant fourth, that he still needs to improve his form on gravel.

Guy Wilks is due to start the rally on the back of a test on the island, which is scheduled to take place on Monday (31 May). The Skoda UK Motorsport pilot has yet to take a win this season but has the pace to mount the top step of the podium in his Fabia S2000. While Wilks hasn't competed in anger since capturing third place in the Canary Islands, his navigator, Phil Pugh, was victorious on the most recent round of the Chinese Rally Championship.

Kris Meeke, the defending IRC champion, prepared for Rally d'Italia-Sardegna with a test southern France recently. Although he reported having improved the set-up of his Peugeot UK-backed 207, the Northern Irishman insists he won't go all out for victory, despite needing to narrow the gap to title leader Hanninen, preferring instead to secure a podium place. Meeke has previous experience in Sardinia and won the first gravel event of the IRC season in Brazil in early March.

Peugeot Sport Portugal's Bruno Magalhaes is another driver hoping to use a pre-event test to bolster his chances of success in Sardinia. The three-time Portuguese champion, who has scored on every round of the year so far, is unlikely to enter the next rally of the series in Belgium so will be determined to put on a strong showing on his first visit to the island next week.

Sebastien Ogier's last appearance in the IRC was on Rallye Automobile Monte-Carlo in January where he was challenging for victory only for alternator failure to force him out on the final night. Since then he has focussed on his world championship campaign with the Citroen Junior Team. Ogier has been called up to help reignite Peugeot's bid for a fourth manufacturers' crown and assist Meeke's efforts to get his drivers' title defence back on track.

Leading the Peugeot Sport Italia challenge is four-time national champion Paolo Andreucci. At 45, the Italian is one of the oldest drivers in the field but is still more than capable of running at the front in his 207, despite conceding that it will be a tall order to beat the IRC regulars.

Andreas Mikkelsen begins his seven-event IRC campaign in Sardinia at the wheel of an M-Sport-run Ford Fiesta S2000. The 20-year-old Norwegian is highly regarded while the Fiesta has already proven to be a winner in the IRC, thanks to Mikko Hirvonen's efforts on the Monte Carlo Rally.

P-G Andersson's conventional Group N Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X might not have the beating of the Super 2000 machines but the Swede, who is armed with previous Sardinia knowledge, is a huge talent and has the ability to fight for a top six finish.

Thierry Neuville began his IRC bid in Gran Canaria last month and showed plenty of promise before he crashed out on the penultimate stage. Fellow Peugeot 207 driver Franz Wittmann also failed to go the distance on the island rally when he too crashed. The Austrian has been plotting his revenge in his Interwetten Racing-run machine ever since.

Burcu Cetinkaya recruited Sebastien Ogier to help her preparations for her expansive IRC campaign, which kicks off in Sardinia. As well as advising the Peugeot Sport Turkey driver on set-up, Ogier also got behind the wheel of Cetinkaya's 207 to offer her a few driving tips.

Sardinia marks the return of former champion Marco Cavigioli to the IRC 2WD Cup ranks, although the Italian has yet to firm up his choice of car. Britons Harry Hunt and Colin R Smith will drive a Ford Fiesta R2 and Honda Civic Type R respectively and will be looking to build up their experience of IRC competition.

THE EXPECTATIONS

P-G Andersson (Sweden), Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X: "I like the event because you have a mix of fast and twisty narrow sections. But to beat the Super 2000 cars in my Group N car will be too much to ask. We are 200kgs heavier, we have to brake earlier for the corners and the brakes are a lower specification so the main target will just be to win Group N."

Paolo Andreucci (I taly), Peugeot 207 S2000: "It's going to be very tough as there will be so many good drivers. I've driven the Peugeot 207 S2000 for a year and half now, and even though it's not the newest S2000 car out there, it is still very competitive. It's also one of the most reliable cars I have ever driven. I feel very happy: it's a real privilege to be competing at this level."

Juho Hanninen (Finland), Skoda Fabia S2000: "I need to win because we have some Tarmac rallies to come and winning those will definitely be more difficult for me. But at the same time it will not be easy in Sardinia because the entry is strong and I know Sebastien Ogier will be very fast and he only has to think about winning the rally, not the championship. The idea is to drive for victory but it will be stupid to take any risks."

 

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