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Belgian out first on tricky dirt roads as Ogier and other rivals look to hit back.

Thierry Neuville is ready to dig deep to defend his FIA World Rally Championship lead in Italy this weekend.

The Belgian stormed to the top of the standings with a sublime victory in Portugal last month. The downside to his success is that, as championship leader, he starts first on Rally Italia Sardegna’s narrow dirt roads in Friday’s opening leg.

His Hyundai i20 will be a high-speed road sweeper, cleaning the surface of loose gravel to create a faster line with more grip for his rivals behind to exploit.

Neuville is resigned to his role, only the second time he has been in this position on gravel in his WRC career, but is set to battle to protect his 19-point lead over reigning champion Sébastien Ogier.

“I know already that it’s going to be a bit of a tough weekend for us,” he said. “I have to keep focused on what my main rivals, Ogier and Ott Tänak, are doing. They are only one and two cars behind me so if they do a small mistake or have a small issue I could benefit from it.

“I need to avoid problems and stay calm, even in the difficult conditions where I know that chances of a good result are very small.”

One glimmer of hope for Neuville lies with the weather forecast for the northern part of Sardinia. Heavy rain is predicted on Thursday which would bind together the gravel and lessen his disadvantage.

“This could help but I think that even if it’s wet, there’s so much loose gravel that it’s going to be tricky. It wouldn’t be as big a handicap then. Times could be pretty close and we could have a chance of a podium,” he explained.

The Italian round marks the midpoint of the season and Neuville already has a plan to derail Ogier’s bid for a sixth consecutive title.

“I try to be consistent, we have a small lead in the points now and we have to keep that and maybe try to increase it.

“At some time we’re going to lose points to him, but if we have a good approach, a competitive car and the team behind us, then we could do something good,” he said.

The rally starts in Alghero on Thursday evening and competitors face 20 speed tests covering 314.36km before Sunday afternoon’s finish in the coastal town.

You must always push the limits. Because if you never fail, you will never succeed.

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