FIA World Rally Championship leader Sébastien Ogier has ruled out prospects of a third victory of the season in Italy this weekend.
Ogier must open the gravel roads in Friday’s first leg at Rally Italia Sardegna and believes the handicap will be too great to overcome during the final two days.
Starting first in the running order on the Mediterranean island’s sandy tracks will cost the Frenchman vital time as he fights for grip. His rivals behind will enjoy a cleaner and faster line, gaining seconds that Ogier will find hard to recover.
“Running first on the road means we can more or less write off our chances of winning from the word go, given how much the stages clean here,” said the six-time world champion, who holds a slender two-point lead over Ott Tänak.
“It looks like we won’t be getting any help to upset the odds from the weather, with no forecast for a repeat of the rain that fell last year. So I’m expecting a tough weekend. Our performance on day one will once again largely determine our overall result.”
Tänak manoeuvred Ogier into the position by sacrificing bonus points in the final speed test at the previous round in Portugal. He slowed metres from the finish to ensure Ogier retained the championship lead and would start first.
Ogier, a three-time Sardinia winner, is no stranger to road sweeping. He performed similar duties in Portugal, minimising the first leg time loss to secure a sixth podium in seven rounds in a Citroën C3, whose performance in low-grip conditions has improved.
Tänak, making his 100th WRC start, is chasing a hat-trick of wins in his Toyota Yaris to take into the mid-season break after victories in Chile and Portugal reignited the Estonian’s flagging title bid.
The third driver in this year’s captivating title fight is Thierry Neuville. The Belgian, who recovered from a massive crash in Chile to finish second in Portugal and trail Ogier by only 10 points, won in Sardinia in 2016 and 2018.
“It’s one of my favourite events,” he said. “It suits perfectly to my driving style and to our pace note system. The championship is heating up nicely, so it will be another close.”
Temperatures exceeding 30°C and roads which become rough and rutted for the second pass make this fixture one of the toughest of the 14-round series. The tracks are fast but narrow, with trees and rocks lining the roadsides to leave little margin for error.
The rally starts in Alghero on Thursday evening and drivers face 19 tests covering 310.52km before the traditional harbour plunge finish celebrations in the town on Sunday afternoon.