Nancy Knapp Schilke, WRC correspondent
At Rally Mexico, it was Petter Solberg who had the fastest time in the FIA World Rally Championship’s qualifying stage. Today, it was the Norwegian’s Ford teammate Jari-Matti Latvala who claimed the honor for this weekend’s Rally de Portugal. The Finn and his co-driver, Miikka Anttila, set a time of 3:01.884 in their Fiesta RS on the 4.96 km special stage.
“The car felt fantastic,” said the Finn as he described his run: “I made the time up in a tricky section where the road curved right over a jump, followed by another right bend immediately afterwards. I braked more heavily than usual for the jump so the car didn’t go too high, and that meant I could go flat out through the next corner. I’ve never done that before but I had the confidence that the grip was there.”
The car felt fantastic.
Solberg missed the top spot by 1.77 seconds. He and co-driver Chris Patterson will be able to decide their start position for the first leg after Latvala. Solberg was clearly was not disappointed as he said, “It’s just where I wanted to be. I took no risks because it was a tricky stage. It was very narrow and fast but there was no dust so we had a clear run. From the team’s perspective it’s an absolutely perfect start.”
While this is the fourth round in the WRC this year, it is the third time that the new qualifying stage was used and all three have been won by the Ford factory team. Latvala had the fastest time in Sweden.
Due to the gravel roads, the decision by the team and their drivers will see Latvala start “last of the priority drivers” and Solberg will be start one place ahead of his teammate. That way, they will not be the ones cleaning the roads, and they hope to have more speed as the route is cleared by the first cars.
The two Citroen factory drivers ended third and fourth fastest with Mikko Hirvonen setting a time of 3:04.232 just ahead of Sebastien Loeb with a 3:04.249.
Ford team director, Malcolm Wilson commented about the conditions they expect: “… we have to be aware that the rally is 80km longer than in previous years and after a dry winter, the roads are some of the roughest we will encounter in the championship. We will have to balance our speed with the need to look after the car as well.”
Tomorrow, the WRC teams will begin their competition in Lisbon with a short 3.27 km on the city streets. From Lisbon, they will head to Faro on the Algarve coast with three stages ran in the hills without daylight to aid them in their challenge.