Extreme E lands in Sardinia this weekend, and it’s another brand new step for the world of off-road motorsport. No, wait; it’s another brand new step in the home of off-road motorsport.
The island of Sardinia is known for its beaches, crystal clear sea, prosperous tourism industry and of course being the host of Italy’s round of the World Rally Championship since 2004.
Previously the iconic Sanremo Rally had been the nation’s world championship round, but a combination of an overcrowded asphalt leg of the calendar and overcrowded mountain roads in northern Italy, along with substantially more tourism money from Sardinia, pulled the WRC across the Mediterranean Sea.
Initially the rally was based out of Olbia in the east, then in 2014 switched to Alghero on the western coast – though it did take in a superspecial stage in the capital city of Cagliari for the first two years. It returned to Olbia this year, bringing with it the classic jump into the sea for the rally winner, but for 2022 it’s still up for discussion where exactly the rally will be based.
The tourist board, which provides money that helps fund the rally, benefits from showing off as much of the island as possible – so rotating it around the coasts looks like the future policy for the event. XE’s decision to use the far south of Sardinia may be an effective recce for the WRC organizer.
“We decided to come back to Olbia this year because the event belongs to all of Sardinia. Not only one part,” Automobile Club Italia senior consultant and Rally Italy director Antonio Turitto told DirtFish earlier this year.
In 2019 the rally also counted towards the Italian Rally Championship, while nine years prior the WRC actually skipped on visiting. That year the Intercontinental Rally Challenge turned up instead, with Juho Hänninen winning in a factory Škoda Fabia S2000.
But that isn’t the only major rally on the island, with the Costa Smeralda Rally having taken place north of Olbia since 1978. It started off in the national championship, then was promoted to European championship status for its second year, and was a popular continental event until 1994.
Once Smeralda dropped off the European Rally Championship calendar, the caliber of drivers making the Sardinian stages their own went from the likes of Henri Toivonen and Juha Kankkunen to Paolo Andreucci and Michele Gregis. Harri Rovanperä did however turn up and win in 2003, driving a Grifone-run Peugeot 206 WRC, ahead of the island joining the WRC a year later.
After 2017 Smeralda became a historic-only rally, and has recently been won by a Porsche 911 Carrera RS 3.0, a Fiat Ritmo Abarth 130 TC, and a Lancia Delta Integrale 16V. This year’s edition takes place the week after the Island X-Prix.
While there’s a big difference between the top and the bottom of the island, where the St Helena is docked, there’s a few common features with all-gravel tests in Sardinia. Mainly that they’re far narrower than they look.
“For Sardinia, you have to be so precise, all the time,” Jari-Matti Latvala told DirtFish.
If it’s dry, then being the first to go on a qualifying run will be a disadvantage due to road sweeping
“You have to watch the tires [in the WRC]. You need to be really careful to make sure you keep them [from wearing out].”
For short bursts of action this shouldn’t be an issue in XE, particularly as it’s gone for an October date rather than the heat of June that Rally Italy usually takes place in, but the instant torque of the all-electric Odyssey 21 will likely cause wheelspin on the gravel and therefore wear on the tires as they rub against a very abrasive surface.
To manage the tires you would want to be braking earlier but softer, and be light on the throttle. At least in a conventional car. And if you don’t go quickly enough then you won’t get enough cool air into the vehicle to cool down all of the battery technology. It’s going to be another big technical challenge on the driving front for XE.
If it’s dry, then being the first to go on a qualifying run will be a disadvantage due to road sweeping, particularly if there are alternative lines. But if it’s wet there could well be ruts that flood, just as was seen in Greenland for the Arctic X-Prix.
The toughest of the conditions have also been tackled by motorcyclists. From 1984-2017, the Sardegna Rally Race – known as Rally di Sardegna until it was rebranded in 2008 – was a rally-raid event that attracted the best in the world on bikes. It was also part of the FIM’s Cross-Country World Championship from 2014-2016.
Dakar Rally winners Marc Coma, Cyril Desperes, Nani Roma and Matthias Walkner have all won the event, while the organizing BikeVillage group also stages the Cavalcata del Sole and Sardinia Legend Rally. Quads and SSV vehicles compete alongside bikes, with proper Dakar-style roadbooks and GPS to navigate.
The new ground that XE will break is that it will be going for sprints rather than the endurance tests the island is used to seeing.
One more thing. It isn’t just the WRC that has used the streets of Cagliari to please the crowds. In 2002 and 2003 the Italian Formula 3000 championship – using cars from the step immediately below Formula 1 in single-seater racing – held races on a circuit that went around the Stadio Sant’Elia soccer stadium, and the world-famous Giro di Sardinia cycling race did the same.