The race for Rally(e) d’Italia 2013

The WRC has Italy on the schedule for June 2013 but it is not, at present, confirmed as the Rally Italia-Sardegna. This is causing plenty of excitement, with the Rallye Sanremo having disappeared from the provisional calendar of the new Eurosport-run FIA European Rally Championship schedule… so, could a return to the hallowed ground of Sanremo be on the cards?

The WRC has been going to Sardinia for its Italian round since 2004 – much to the consternation of the manufacturers and sponsors who remained aboard the series throughout those years. In terms of national impact in Italy it’s the equivalent of holding the Rally GB on the Isle of Wight – albeit a much longer boat trip to get there.

Sardinia is fine for tourists but it’s far away from the mainland, the movers and shakers and the car-buying public.

Sardinia is a long way off the beaten track for the WRC

Although the Sardinian stages themselves have won fans around the world for their fast, narrow and rugged nature, they also tend to claim a large number of casualties due to rock damage and other incidents. This year saw a potentially enthralling battle for the lead between Mikko Hirvonen and Sébastien Loeb finish early on the first full day when Loeb crashed, then Hirvonen really only had to cruise to the finish while the works Fords of Jari-Matti Latvala and Petter Solberg crashed out.

In contrast, Sanremo is an icon in motor sport. The first “Rallye Internazionale di Sanremo” was held in 1928 (using the French spelling of ‘rally’ in deference to its near neighbour Monte Carlo), and was part of the WRC from its first year in 1973 until the circus departed for Sardinia. Up until 1997, Sanremo was a mixed-surface event running on both gravel and asphalt, but became an all-asphalt event in 1997 when the format of WRC events was simplified.

Since the founding of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge in 2006, Sanremo has been a landmark event on its schedule, taking place each autumn as one of the most significant title-deciding events. The IRC brought with it extremely effective logistical support and a far better TV and promotional package than the WRC could offer, but with the series now consigned to history and its organisers and promoters taking over the European Rally Championship, it may provide the Sanremo team under Sergio Maiga with the incentive they need to restore their event to the world championship.

Sanremo has thrived under Eurosport-owned IRC

The provisional calendar for the 2013 FIA European Rally Championship features just one Italian event – the Rally San Marino. This leaves several great events in the Italian rally calendar – including the 1000 Miglia in Brescia, the Rally Targa Florio in Sicily and the Rally del Friuli e delle Alpi Orientali in Udine – out of the international spotlight, while the provisional WRC calendar features only four asphalt events compared to eight gravel rallies.

In the past decade, Sardinia is known to have brought a financial bonus to the WRC in the form of a €1 million bursary from the Sardinian tourist board to organise the event, plus a further €200,000 sweetener from the town council in Olbia. New promoter Red Bull doesn’t need the cash, but instead needs to ensure that the very best events available are on the world championship calendar.

There are three conspicuous problems with Sanremo returning to the WRC in 2013.

At a logistical level it is currently a two day event, as opposed to the three days plus an opening night of a WRC rally, meaning that stages must be recommissioned and enough stewards, marshals and safety workers must be available to staff it. Secondly the move to a provisional June date might well prove an obstacle for a rally that is traditionally held in late September or early October.

Sanremo is an enchanting step back in time, not a modern venue

Finally, Sanremo is a small town whose faded grandeur suits rallying particularly well, but whose endearingly shambolic Rally HQ (in a disused railway station) and single five-star hotel might just make Red Bull and its corporate investors blanch.

Clearly there is much at stake for rallying in Italy, but ensuring that it has the best possible showcase on the world championship calendar must be paramount. At WRF we believe that Sardinia will get a stay of execution but with better forward planning for 2014 perhaps Sanremo can reappear as a mixed-surface event.

One thing is for sure: it looks like there is plenty of action going to be taking place before the final 2013 WRC schedule is announced.

Over to you, rally bosses!

Hirvonen cruises to victory

After the crash-fest of the opening day on Friday, the Rallye Italia-Sardegna lapsed into a virtual coma, from which Mikko Hirvonen emerged victorious.

When cars are separated by more than a minute, nothing much is going to happen. Nothing did. Hirvonen pootled along after the early jostle with his nine-time title-winning team-mate Seb Loeb finished on Friday, the Finn never needing to break sweat after Loeb threw his car at the scenery.

The remaining podium places were taken by M-Sport Ford Fiestas (those of Evgeny Novikov and Ott Tänak), after the works Fords of Jari-Matti Latvala and Petter Solberg came to grief on Friday. Mads Østberg was impressive in his drive to fourth place in the Adapta team Fiesta, logging a succession of stage wins to claw back time after being forced to run in front-wheel-drive only on Friday afternoon.

Far and away the most impressive performance of the weekend was, however, that of fifth-placed Sébastien Ogier. In a non-turbo Škoda Fabia S2000, the Frenchman was in electrifying form, taking the outright fastest time on SS5 and keeping  ahead of Chris Atkinson’s MINI WRC and Martin Prokop’s Fiesta WRC to the finish. Ogier’s team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen, the 2012 IRC champion-elect, also shone as he seeks to secure forward progress in his career, finishing seventh.

Ogier conjures another giant-killing performance for Škoda

Nevertheless, it was a spectacularly boring affair. Given that most of the field can find their way through the stages of the Rallye de España blindfolded, there are unlikely to be any great surprises there, either.

WRC goes bonkers in Sardinia crash-fest

Perhaps it’s because of all the jockeying for position on the 2013 entry list, with drivers skulking about in the bushes behind the service area signing letters of intent and holding 3 a.m. meetings with team principals. We don’t know, but for some reason the 2012 Rallye Italia-Sardegna’s becoming a fender-bending event like nothing else so far this year.

Sébastien Loeb took the opportunity to hurl his DS3 at the scenery on the first stage of Day 2. Well, he’s the newly-crowned champion so he can celebrate however he likes, can’t he?

Jari-Matti Latvala then gave the Sardinian hedgerows something to think about when he uprooted some flora and fauna with his Fiesta on the very next stage. Perhaps he’s hoping that M-Sport and Ford will agree to let him test his new Volkswagen before the end of the year by showing them how much money can be saved from their repair bill.

As a result of all this shenanigans the second works Citroën of Mikko Hirvonen took a healthy lead on the event over the second works Ford of Petter Solberg, who immediately set about closing the gap… and crashed!

In the wake of Latvala’s announcement that he will be driving for Volkswagen next year, Solberg stated that he was ready to pick up where Latvala left off as Ford team leader. Clearly, this was meant literally.

With Mads Østberg hobbled in a front-wheel-drive Fiesta following another disagreement with the scenery, this has left Hirvonen with a sizeable advantage over young Russian prodigy Evgeny Novikov in his M-Sport Fiesta, with the second M-Sport car of Ott Tänak holding the final podium position at the end of Friday’s action.

More than a minute separates each of the top trio, so you could be forgiven for thinking that things look a little less than exciting for the remainder of the event. This would be the wrong conclusion, however…

Tyre wear is proving problematic for the 1.6-litre turbocharged WRC cars, but the Super 2000 Škodas of Volkswagen Motorsport are coping admirably. So much so, in fact, that Sébastien Ogier went fastest of all on SS5 and, with Tänak nursing a misfire, the feisty Frenchman is in with a sniff of a podium finish.

Now that really would make Sardinia a rally to remember!

Ogier gets the Fabia S2000 flying on gravel – the podium is now in sight in Sardinia