Hirvonen Mixing It With Leaders
Starting in Lisbon and ending in the Algarve, day one of Rally de Portugal witnessed plenty of drama and incident, the most significant of which was the crash that spelled the end of Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena’s rally. The Citroën Total World Rally Team’s chances of victory now lie with Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, who ended the first day third overall, just five seconds behind the leader.
After disputing the qualifying stage on Wednesday morning, the Rally de Portugal competitors returned to action on Thursday evening in Lisbon for the first stage, with the Mosteiros dos Jeronimos serving as a fine backdrop. Once the crowds had been thrilled by the WRCs sliding around the cobbled streets of the Portuguese capital, the crews headed south to tackle the first of the rally’s gravel stages.
Run after nightfall, the three timed stages around Ourique had provided the teams with a real headache when it came to choosing starting positions. Fearful that the kicked-up dust wouldn’t settle, Mikko Hirvonen and Sébastien Loeb had decided it was preferable to start in the first two positions.
Before he even had a chance to find out what times his main rivals had posted on SS2, Sébastien Loeb found himself out of the rally after crashing on SS3. “We came to a crest which started with a short left-hand turn followed by a longer right-hand turn. Daniel gave me the right pace note, but I continued to turn to the left,” described the eighttime World Champion. “I tried to correct, but my DS3 WRC skidded into a big ditch and we were thrown into a roll. The damage wasn‘t that too bad… except for the roll cage, which did its job and ended up bent.” The no.1 crew will therefore not be able to rejoin the rally tomorrow under Rally2 regulations: “It's a shame, because the small lead we had built at the top of the World Championship standings will probably disappear.”
Meanwhile, Mikko Hirvonen is engaged in a fine battle with Jari-Matti Latvala and Petter Solberg. The Finn ended day one in third position, just 5s behind Latvala and 2.4s adrift of Solberg. “It’s almost funny that the differences are so small given that we chose such different strategies as regards the starting positions,” pointed out Mikko. “I don’t really know who chose the best option, but I am convinced we took fewer risks. If there had been more dust or if the rain had fallen earlier, we would have had a big advantage.”
Mikko now carries the hopes of the Citroën Total World Rally Team alone: “I have been in similar situations many times in the past. Obviously, the ideal outcome would be to win the rally! In any case, I wouldn’t be happy if I finish the rally in third place. I am going to fight hard, but I am also very aware that I must make it to the finish to score points towards the World Championship.”