J-WRC debut win for Kosciuszko in Sardinia
After a nail-biting finale with Martin Prokop (CZ, Citroën), Polish driver Michal Kosciuszko and co-driver Maciej Szczepaniak put in a spectacular performance to take the first win of their J-WRC career in their Suzuki Swift on Rally d’Italia Sardegna, the third round of the 2008 FIA Junior World Rally Championship. Alessandro Bettega (I, Renault) finished his home event in second 4min 24.9secs adrift, with Aaron Burkart (D, Citroën) in third. Sébastien Ogier (F, Citroën) still leads the J-WRC standings, eight points ahead of Kosciuszko and Shaun Gallagher (IRL, Citroën), equal in points but lie in second and third respectively.

While Patrik Sandell (S, Renault) set the opening pace, Martin Prokop (CZ, Citroën) soon grabbed hold of the lead by SS2. The Czech driver had no real problems throughout the first day but he drove a little too cautiously on SS8 and SS9 and with a confident Kosciuszko right on his tail, the Pole passed him by the middle of day two. The duo started the afternoon’s group of stages just 1.5secs apart and Kosciuszko finished the day with only half a second advantage. They continued to trade stage wins and seconds on the final day until disaster struck for Prokop when a fuel pressure problem forced him to stop mid-stage and the 29 minutes he lost pulled him down the order to 10th. Bettega, who benefitted from Sandell’s problems on day two, adopted third which he confidently defended until his steady drive was finally rewarded with another promotion once Prokop had dropped down.

2006 J-WRC Champion Sandell held third for the first day but misfortune struck on SS8 when his steering arm worked loose, pulling the wheel under the car and forcing the driveshaft out. Despite managing to make some repairs he had to stop for the day to prevent further damage. While Bettega continued to dominate third for most of the event, a chasing Burkart also happily found himself moved up a position on the penultimate stage of the day to take the final podium spot, after a difficult rally.

While the fight for fourth place was fairly fluid on the first day, passing through the hands of Ogier, Jaan Mölder (EE, Suzuki) and Bettega, Gallagher adopted it as his own by SS8, despite complaining of bad brake balance through day one. The Irishman also struggled through the whole rally with the set-up of his C2, fine tuning it each time he returned to service. Unfortunately a puncture on SS14 cost him over three minutes, allowing the chasing C2 of Burkart into fourth while he dropped to fifth. But Gallagher also benefitted from Prokop’s misfortunes on SS16, reclaiming fourth to finish. Championship leader Ogier had to settle for fifth place by the end of the rally, ending his unbeaten record.

Molder dominated fifth place on the first day and by SS8 it was claimed by Burkart, but with so much movement in all positions, by the end of the rally it belonged to Ogier. After a stunning start to the season, the Frenchman’s luck turned as his car lacked traction and the rear was moving a lot on the opening day. He eased off to pass the stranded vehicle of a fellow competitor on SS4 which resulted in a puncture; he continued but later hit a bank which damaged his steering and transmission, preventing him completing the rest of the day’s stages and resulting in a 15-minute penalty. He enjoyed day two, pushing as hard as he dared in the rough conditions and worked his way up the leaderboard to fifth as others faltered.

Stefano Albertini (I, Renault) struggled with no brakes from SS2 and electrical woes plagued SS6. His electrical problems recurred on day two’s SS9, as did his brake issues by the last stage of day two but he coped well with the rough conditions of the final day to score three points on his the second WRC rally of his career.

After Sandell retired on day two’s SS8 with a broken driveshaft, he restarted for the final day but having taken on board 25 minutes of penalties, scoring a podium result was no longer an option as he dropped from third to 10th. But he fought back to claim two consolation points for seventh.

Hans Weijs Jr. (NL, Citroën) had a front left puncture on SS1 which he drove on for seven kilometres, setting him back over a minute, but the car ran well in the afternoon’s group of stages and Weijs chose to drive carefully. Unfortunately a heavy landing after a jump in SS8 resulted in radiator damage and lost cooling fluid, so he drove slowly through the next stage to reach service. He survived hitting the same hole which cost Niegel his rally on Saturday, as well as an electronic issue caused by taking on board water through the splash on day three. An ECU issue troubled the Dutch driver on the final day but he finally finished eighth to score the first J-WRC point of his career. He also scored maximum points as first finishing Rookie and eight points as second finishing ASN driver.

Jaan Mölder’s (EE, Suzuki) Swift was understeering in slow corners early on day one and the Estonian had difficulty with the brakes on downhill sections, overshooting a junction on SS3 as well as suffering with a rear puncture 10 km before the end of SS6. But it was a cracked engine sump which set him back from SS8, incurring a huge amount of penalties for not finishing the day. The final day was much improved as he recorded a stage win on SS16 and finished ninth.

Behind Prokop in tenth was Andrea Cortinovis (I, Renault). The Italian had a difficult rally as hit a rock on SS1 just five kilometres before the end of the stage and lost use of the power steering. The afternoon proved better, continuing into day two, but a broken driveshaft on SS10 stopped him for the day. He didn’t take much more enjoyment out of the tricky final day and he eventually brought his Clio to the finish in 11th.

After a great performance in Jordan, Gilles Schammel (LUX, Renault) hit a rock only eight kilometres into the first stage of the rally which broke the front left suspension of his Clio R3, sidelining him for the day. He restarted day two but he stopped with an overheating engine on SS8, added water but lost six minutes waiting for it to cool. Thankfully, he was happier with the afternoon’s group of stages but a puncture in SS15, costing five minutes and ongoing engine woes on day three saw him finish in 12th.

Francesco Fanari’s (I) rally started badly as a broken rear left axle stopped him in his tracks for the first day. While he had a few set-up issues on day two, he was generally happier with his new C2-R2 MAX, driving it for the first time in Sardinia. But a broken steering rack on the last stage of day two prevented the Italian from finishing the day and electrical problems caused him difficulty on the final day before bringing his C2-R2 home in 13th. He also scored eight points for the Rookie standings, extending his lead to Weijs Jr. by 18 points.

The J-WRC’s youngest competitor Kevin Abbring (NL, Renault) had a difficult start to the rally as a ‘jumpy’ rear of his R3 saw him hit a barrier quite heavily three quarters of the way through SS2, costing him a couple of minutes. He returned to service but he left having only checked the rear corners of the car and it wasn’t until he was on the road section to the afternoon’s stages that he realised the front steering rack had also been broken in the impact, sidelining him for the rest of the day. Wanting to gain experience, the 19-year-old took it steadily from day two but struggled with his confidence. A good stage time on SS13 buoyed the Dutch youngster, only to be followed by a front left puncture on the next stage which cost 40 seconds. And the final nail in his Sardinian coffin was a broken steering arm which sadly saw him sidelined. Simone Bertolotti (I, Renault) struggled a little as, like others, his car was set up for rougher roads on day one. Things improved after lowering the suspension, although he had a front left puncture on SS6 just six kilometres before the end. Unfortunately he went off the road on SS16 and was forced to retire and he was unable to rejoin.

Milos Komljenovic (SCG, Renault) also had a difficult start to his rally as a broken driveshaft on SS2 sidelined him for the first day. The Serbian restarted for day two but he went off the road on SS8 causing extensive damage to the codriver’s side of his R3. The crew went to hospital for precautionary checks.

Florian Niegel’s (D, Suzuki) rally started well as he drove cautiously taking no risks on day one, making set-up changes throughout to accommodate the differences in stage condition from the recce, as the roads were a lot smoother. The German driver, who was awarded his J-WRC drive after winning the Suzuki Rallye Cup last year, was taking time to learn on only the third WRC event of his career. But an accident on SS7 saw him roll end-over-end twice mid-stage forcing him out of the rally with extensive damage to his Swift.

1st – Michal Kosciuszko, Suzuki Swift S1600:
“It’s been a great event, really amazing. We’ve been fighting for all three days and it was one of the best battles of my career. It was difficult last night as we were only half a second ahead of Prokop but I tried not to think about my position and just focus on how I need to drive perfect stages and put some pressure on Martin. I’m sorry for him but it’s incredible to win here where all the Juniors are competing – it’s great competition. And it’s my first J-WRC win – let’s hope it will be like this in the future.

2nd – Alessandro Bettega, Renault Clio R3:
“This result is perfect but I would have been happy with third! I feel sorry for Prokop as we’re friends but I’m even happier that we’re second after the problems we had on the second day. Today was really tough but we just took it steadily to avoid any problems. When we saw Martin I honestly felt bad as he deserved second. And it’s even better as it’s our best J-WRC result.”

3rd – Aaron Burkart, Citroën C2 S1600:
“Of course I’m really happy after day one and then I didn’t dare think that I could finish on the podium. We hit a stone and we had problems with the car after that and lost a lot of time, it just reacted a bit funny. So I’m very happy to be here. I just need to check the car to see what’s going on with it before the next rally.”

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