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As the FIA World Rally Championship approaches the halfway point, reigning champion and current leader BP-Ford faces what most regard as two of the toughest events of the season in just three weekends.  Round seven of the 16-event series takes the team to the Mediterranean island of Sardinia for Rally d'Italia Sardegna (17 - 20 May), a gravel rally which ranks among the most abrasive and demanding of the year.

Following the disappearance of Cyprus and Turkey from the 2007 calendar, Rally d'Italia Sardegna and next month's Acropolis Rally of Greece are the only Mediterranean gravel events this year and both have a reputation for being hard.  In Sardinia a fine sandy surface masks a hard base beneath and once the early starters have swept the loose gravel away, the rocky roads combine with relatively high spring temperatures to demand strong durability from BP-Ford's BFGoodrich tyres.

Although the rally has been a WRC round for the past three seasons, BP-Ford drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen cannot say they know the speed tests well.  Organisers change much of the route annually and for the third successive year more than half of this year's special stages will be new.  However, the characteristics of the roads are familiar to both drivers as the island is regularly used as a test location by the team.

The rally is based in the industrial town of Olbia, in the Costa Smeralda region in the north of the island, but starts and finishes in Porto Cervo, one of Europe's most exclusive holiday resorts.  The stages contain a mix of narrow, twisty roads and more flowing tracks.  While organisers have removed many of the roughest roads from the itinerary, there are still enough there to demand strength and reliability from the team's Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars.

After extending its lead in the manufacturers' championship on the last round in Argentina, BP-Ford goes to Sardinia with a nine-point advantage.  Grönholm lies second in the drivers' standings, just three points from the lead, and the 39-year-old Finn already has five podium finishes to his credit from six events this season.

"When we first started going to Sardinia the stages weren't so enjoyable but organisers have removed some of the roughest and narrowest roads and they are wider and faster now, although there are still plenty of narrow sections," he said.  "It's one of the most abrasive rounds of the championship and if the weather is hot it's important to think about looking after the tyres.  But the pace is such that it's hard to think about driving at anything other than flat out.

"We're making a few small set-up changes following Rally Argentina.  There's nothing major, just a few small tweaks that we hope will make improvements.  The time difference between myself and Loeb on the first full day in Argentina was little more than a tenth of a second a kilometre.  That's not big, but it's big enough and these days it's not easy to find that kind of time.  We're all working hard to close that gap in Sardinia," added Grönholm.

Hirvonen lies third in the drivers' championship and was second here last year.  "The rally is in the same area as always but each year the organisers make changes to the route to miss out certain sections and include new ones," he said.  "It doesn't make a big difference.  The most difficult aspect is that the stages are so narrow, even when they are faster and flowing, often with large stones right on the edge of the road.  It's important to be precise with my driving and equally so with my pace notes for the new sections.

"One of my targets for this season was to be closer to Marcus and Sébastien Loeb in terms of stage times.  In Sweden, Norway and Mexico I achieved that but in Argentina that wasn't the case.  Maybe it was because I had less experience of the roads, but I drove too safely.  So I want to find more speed and be braver in Sardinia," he added.

Team News

* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force gravel tyre for the low-wear loose surface roads.  The pattern is relatively compact to ensure a maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the ground for the best possible grip and traction.  The grooves can be hand cut to open them if there is a lot of loose gravel on the road surface or if the tracks become muddy.  The tyres will be available in medium and hard compound rubber.

* The team will test for four days in Greece following the rally in preparation for next month's Acropolis Rally of Greece.  Hirvonen will test for two days on 22 / 23 May with Grönholm taking over for the next two days.

* The rally is the third round of the FIA Junior Rally Championship and Italians Alessandro Bettega and Simone Scattolin will drive a Fiesta Super 1600 as part of their prize for winning last year's inaugural Fiesta SportingTrophy International series.  They prepared for the rally with a test in Greystoke Forest in Britain last week.  The event is also the third round of the 2007 SportingTrophy championship for Fiesta ST cars and the entry is headed by series leaders Barry Clark and Scott Martin, who won the first two rounds.

* Hirvonen and Lehtinen will attend the Champions League soccer final in Athens on Wednesday 23 May as guests of Ford of Europe.  Ford is a major partner of the Champions League.  As Liverpool fans, both Hirvonen and Lehtinen will be urging on the British team against AC Milan.

Rally Route

While the base remains in Olbia, organisers have again made big changes to the route.  Fifty-two per cent of the competitive distance is new, including more than half the opening leg and all the final day.  The exclusive coastal resort of Porto Cervo again hosts both the start and finish ceremonies.  The opening leg is the longest and covers traditional territory south of Olbia in the Nuoro region.  The second leg is essentially the same as 2006, covering more inland tests in Gallura and including the spectacular 'camel humps' jump on the Monte Lerno stage.  The final day heads west and north of Olbia for tests around Tempio Pausania and Arzachena.  All three legs comprise three stages used twice and the 18 stages cover 342.86km in a route of 1061.84km.  
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