Rally de Portugal
Ford holds first and second after opening leg of Rally de Portugal
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team is first and second after today's opening leg of Rally de Portugal. Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila lead this third round of the FIA World Rally Championship in a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car by 11.5sec from the similar vehicle of fellow Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen.
Latvala was fastest on all three of this afternoon's speed tests to climb from fourth position into top spot. Hirvonen led the rally for most of the morning, having won yesterday evening's showpiece special stage in Lisbon, in front of 40,000 fans and broadcast live on television.
That short asphalt stage around the roads of the capital's Jerónimos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a warm up for today's action. Having relocated south to Faro, on Portugal's Algarve coastline, the opening leg was fought out over tough gravel roads in the hills above the town. Drivers tackled two identical loops of three tests covering 129.14km.
The skies were overcast for much of the day but the action on the roads was red hot. Just 6.0sec covered the leading quartet after the morning loop of stages, and those four drivers swapped positions on all but one test during the leg as the battle for supremacy raged.
Latvala ended the morning in fourth. The 25-year-old breathed a huge sigh of relief after safely negotiating the stage in which he and Anttila emerged unscathed after a massive accident two years ago, when their car plunged 200 metres down a hillside after rolling 12 times.
"I watched that section twice on our recce videos before leaving the hotel this morning," admitted Latvala. "I was nervous at the stage start and lost a few seconds because I drove that bend slowly, but I don't mind. I realise I must have been about 100kph too fast in that corner two years ago!"
Three fastest times promoted him into the lead after the final stage. Latvala ignored the tactical opportunity to slow in the final kilometre and drop down the leaderboard, in the hope of benefiting from cleaner road conditions tomorrow due to a lower start position.
"The roads aren't cleaning as much as I expected," he explained. "The new-generation rally cars have less power than the cars we used previously. It means the wheels don't spin as much and the roads aren't cleaned in the same way they used to be. I'm not afraid of the conditions. The others are hunting me now, but I have won a rally from the front before and I can do so again.
"It's a great position for the team to be in tonight. My driving improved hugely this afternoon and tomorrow I need to drive just as well, smoothly and with precision," added Latvala.
Overnight leader Hirvonen retained the lead over today's first two stages, and was just 3.3sec behind in third as the loop ended. He entered the penultimate test in fourth, but climbed to second on the final stage as two of his rivals chose the tactical option.
"This morning was the best I have had in the Fiesta RS WRC," said Hirvonen. "The car is small and agile and it was great fun to drive. Driving is still not totally instinctive and there were areas in which we can make improvements, but it was a good start to the rally. Some sections had more loose gravel on the surface than others, but after the recce I knew road cleaning wouldn't be a big problem.
"It looks as though there will be a big four-car fight and I'm looking forward to that. I took no risks this afternoon, because I didn't want to do anything stupid. The roads were made up of hard abrasive bedrock, but Michelin's tyres performed well and I didn't need to worry about tyre wear," he added.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr lie 10th in the team's third car, despite sliding into a ditch in the first stage. "It was a positive finish for us after a slow start in dusty conditions. I spent the morning feeling slightly unbalanced, but after a few tweaks during lunchtime service my confidence picked up and I finished today happy. Hopefully we can continue the momentum into tomorrow," said Al Qassimi.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on good performances from his drivers. "We had an excellent test before the rally and our drivers started full of confidence, but I didn't expect to be first and second given our start positions. We decided they wouldn't slow tactically in the final stage, as Mikko didn't lose as much time as we thought by being first in the start order and cleaning the roads. Jari-Matti feels comfortable with that role tomorrow and didn't want to give time away," he said.
News from other Ford teams
M-Sport Stobart Ford World Rally Team's Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor are fifth in a Fiesta RS WRC despite a morning misfire, with team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin one position behind. The team's other pairing, Mads Østberg and Jonas Andersson, lost almost two minutes last night after hitting a kerb and ripping off their car's front right wheel. They then retired on the opening stage this morning with gearbox problems. Munchi's Ford's Federico Villagra and Jose Diaz are eighth in their Fiesta RS WRC, with FERM Power Tools duo Dennis Kuipers and Frederic Miclotte in 12th. Reigning Portuguese champion Bernardo Sousa and Antonio Costa rolled their Fiesta RS WRC out of ninth place on the final stage. Monster World Rally Team's Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino didn't start the rally after rolling heavily in Wednesday's shakedown test and damaging their car too severely to compete.
The second leg is the longest of the weekend, with competitors facing 148.10km of action. The competition is again based in the hills north of Faro and drivers will tackle two identical loops of three tests, split by a return to the rally base for service. They leave the town at 09.00 and return for the final overnight halt at 18.45.