Five fiercely competitive Ford Fiesta RS WRC crews will take on next week’s Rally Italia Sardegna for the M-Sport Stobart Ford World Rally Team as the FIA World Rally Championship moves from the Middle East to the Mediterranean.
The enlarged Cumbria-based contingent will feature a colourful range of six different nationalities amongst its drivers and co-drivers when it arrives in Sardinia – including British, Norwegian, Austrian, Swedish, Belgian and Russian.
Of the five crews it will be Britain’s Matthew Wilson and Norway’s Mads Østberg who will be nominated to score points at the fifth round of the WRC and lead the way for the team on the gravel stages of the Olbia-based event.
Wilson and fellow Cumbrian co-driver Scott Martin are enjoying a good run of form and have competed in the top-five at the previous three WRC events. The 24-year-old will be aiming to maintain this consistency and secure his first ever hat-trick of consecutive top-five finishes in the world championship when he tackles Rally Italia Sardegna on his favoured gravel surface.
Mads Østberg propelled M-Sport Stobart into the record books with his second-place finish at the WRC season-opener in Sweden, but technical problems at recent events have since hindered the 23-year-old driver from moving further up the drivers’ standings. Østberg and co-driver Jonas Andersson are due to contest the fourth round of the Norwegian Rally Championship – Rally Sørland – in a Ford Fiesta S2000 this weekend. It will mark the Scandinavian’s first outing on gravel in M-Sport’s new generation rally car, and the pair hope the experience they gain over the weekend will hold them in good stead for challenging the factory WRC drivers in Sardinia next week.
Fellow Norwegian Henning Solberg and co-driver Ilka Minor have had an unfortunate start to the season, with mechanical issues preventing the pair from collecting a top-five result so far. However, the recently-turned WRC centurion has shown an impressive turn of speed in the new Ford Fiesta RS WRC when given the opportunity – posting two top-three stage times at the previous WRC round in Jordan – and will be looking to use his past experience of the Italian roads to match his fourth-place finish at 2007’s Rally Italia Sardegna.
Thanks to the generosity of his fans who helped raise the necessary funds, double Junior World Rally Champion P-G Andersson contested this year’s Rally Sweden in Ford’s new Fiesta RS WRC. The money left over has also helped Andersson to make it into the starting order for next week’s event, where he and co-driver Emil Axelsson will compete under the M-Sport Stobart Ford banner for the second time.
Andersson’s lack of experience on gravel in the Fiesta RS WRC will make the going difficult for the 30-year-Swede, but he can take comfort in the fact that he is one of the only drivers to have knowledge of Friday’s leg. The new stages in Oristano have been introduced for the first time in the WRC, but were part of last year’s Rally Italia Sardegna which Andersson contested when it ran outside the WRC calendar.
Russia’s Evgeny Novikov made a strong comeback to the WRC when he contested Rally Mexico with the M-Sport Stobart Ford team in March – the WRC’s youngest-ever stage winner was running fifth until an engine problem forced the tenacious pilot to retire on the penultimate day. Novikov also has an excellent track record in Italy – his best WRC result to date is from 2009’s event when the 20-year-old finished fifth overall, and the ambitious Russian will be striving for another impressive result next week.
Matthew Wilson said:
“Sardinia can be a tough rally – the roads are mostly fast and narrow but there’s also some flat open areas too so it’s a mix of everything. Most of the stages are similar to 2009 but the majority of Friday’s stages are going to be new so that’ll be the most challenging aspect. We’ll need to make sure we have a good recce and can get the pacenotes for the first day as accurate as we can. I remember there being lots of stones lying close to the road last time so we really need to be careful to avoid these and there’s also the risk of ruts forming on the second pass. For sure, it’s a difficult event but if we can keep the momentum going from the last couple of rallies then we should be able to finish with another top-five result.”
Mads Østberg said:
“I’m been to Sardinia before and I’m really looking forward to going back – I want to forget about the last couple of rallies and concentrate on driving again, hopefully without any problems this time. It’s really important for both the championship and for our sponsors that we finish with a good result. I’ve got the third round of the Norwegian Rally Championship in the Ford Fiesta S2000 this weekend – my first gravel event in the Fiesta S2000 so it’ll be a perfect test ahead of Sardinia. I’ve been to Italy three times before but the stages on the first day are mostly new so we’ll have to ensure we have a good recce and try to get the pacenotes as accurate as possible.”
Henning Solberg said:
“We’ve had a few problems over the last couple of rallies but when I’m happy with the set-up, I have a perfect feeling in the car. Sardinia is quite like Portugal for me – I know the event well and the road conditions are very similar. I’ve got a good road position next week and this should help on the first day – if I can find the right set-up at Shakedown then I will be looking to push right from the start. The new Michelin tyres were great in Jordan, I don’t think there were any punctures all weekend and hopefully this will be the same in Sardinia. I just hope to have a trouble-free rally next week so I can look to go flat out for a good result.”
P-G Andersson said:
“It’s not going to be easy next week – we’re straight into the Fiesta RS WRC at Shakedown without any test. I hope to match the times of the other drivers but they’ve had a lot more experience on gravel than we’ve had so it’s going to be very tough. We managed to get a good feeling straightaway in Sweden and then we had our problem on Friday, but we still managed to set fastest stage times. I just hope to have a clear run, be one of the best privateers and get as close to the top five as I can. I wish to be able to give something back to all my fans so I really hope for a good result next week.”
Evgeny Novikov said:
“Next week will be my second time in Italy and it will also be my second event this season. Truthfully I have no expectations about this rally – it’s not a new event for me as I was driving these stages in 2009 and although I had a good result last time, I do not want to be making predictions about where I will finish right now. It has been quite a long time since Rally Mexico now but Stephane [Prevot] and I will polish our pacenotes and I’m looking forward to gaining more experience on world events.”