IRC Sardinia preview : The competitors
Fifth round of the IRC championship
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.