Not since March has the World Rally Championship embarked on a full Friday of competition – until today. And today includes six stages, with the morning’s first two repeated immediately before the crews return to Alghero for service at 1347.
SS1/3 Tempio Pausania (7.50 miles)
What a way to start the rally… in a children’s playground. After one of the most unusual half miles in world rallying, the stage slots right onto the gravel and it’s straight into hardcore Sardinia. In its full form, this stage is new. Parts of it have run in 2004 and 2005 and if Jari-Matti Latvala’s original plan to compete in Italy had come off, the Finn would have had the edge in here as the only driver who’d competed here before.
Universally the drivers picked out this road as one which could help shape the overall result of round six – it’s that twisty, that muddy, that narrow and that complicated.
Heavy rain (remember Storm Alex? He – or she -– hit hard in this part of the world) has softened the surface dramatically in places. Tempio Pausania is anything but a straightforward start.
SS2/4 Erula – Tula (13.53 miles)
That complicated and technically challenging opener is good preparation for this stage, which will almost certainly be one of the slowest of the weekend if not the season. The surface and grip level changes are numerous, but in the middle of the twisty narrow bits there’s a section through a windfarm which includes compressions, jumps and junctions – lots of them. The first three miles is new for everybody, otherwise the rest of the stage is familiar.
Not one of Sardinia’s busiest roads through the winter, some sections of SS2/4 have grass growing up the middle.
SS5/11 Sedini – Castelsardo (9.18 miles)
It’s back closer to the coast for the first stage after service on Friday and Saturday. And it’s a stage with distinct sections and rhythm changes. Off the start the cars are out onto moorland and through a windfarm section. There’s a section of just short of a mile on asphalt before the midpoint. Through a tunnel (which takes the cars across the main road) the road climbs sharply towards a hairpin on a broken road which will challenge anything but the hardest compound in potentially the hottest part of the day. From there on, the grip level seems to constantly change making any kind of flow hard to find.
SS6/12 Tergu – Osilo (7.96 miles)
It’s not for no reason that Pirelli has selected this stretch of road to run its 2021 tire development… the surface in here is horribly abrasive. Starting a mile further into the stage than last year it’s wide and fast on hard-packed bedrock to begin with. But don’t be fooled, the road is covered with loose gravel. Out in the open, much of this has dried from the pre-recce rain and this one should clean.
After a couple of miles of climbing, the stage crosses the road and heads downhill towards the finish over a bunch of bridges. One of the week’s biggest challenges, this is a hugely rewarding stage which, when you get it right, offers the chance to pull good time with the right rhythm. But it’s easy to get it wrong, as Kris Meeke discovered when he dropped the Citroën in 2017.