Hirvonen holds third in Sardinia as sunshine island turns tough
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen won three speed tests en route to third place after today's opening leg of Rally Italia Sardegna. The Finns, driving a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car, lost time with a puncture after hitting a bank, but a high rate of attrition means they remain in a strong position with two more tough days remaining.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila retired this morning after damaging the suspension of their Fiesta RS WRC when they went off the road early in the opening special stage. The accident happened after a pace note error and although they continued initially, they were forced out in the following test. They will restart tomorrow under SupeRally rules.
The car ended back on the road but the impact damaged the left steering arm.
After last night's start ceremony in Olbia, competitors left the town early this morning for a long drive to the Mediterranean island's west coast. They tackled two groups of four identical gravel stages covering 131.06km, all of which were new to the WRC. After heavy rain earlier in the week, hot sunshine and a strong breeze ensured the roads were totally dry.
Hirvonen, second in the drivers' championship, was relieved not to be heading the start order. Second in the list meant, for the first time this season on gravel, he did not have the disadvantage of sweeping dirt and stones from the surface to leave a cleaner, faster line for those behind.
Thirty-year-old Hirvonen took the lead on the second stage with fastest time. He held top spot through the next test before reaching the mid-leg service just 2.7sec from the lead. He won the afternoon's opening stage and was only 5.8sec from the lead when he hit a bank and punctured the rear right tyre on the penultimate stage. The incident cost 50sec, but Hirvonen bounced back to claim the victory spoils on the final test to end the day 53.1sec from the lead.
"The roads were slippery this morning, especially in the last two stages of the loop," he said. "My start position helped because, for the first time this year on a gravel rally, I didn't have to sweep the roads on the opening day. On the wide, hard-based sections I took advantage because I could see a clean line created by Sébastien Loeb ahead. But on the rougher, twistier roads there was no benefit.
"I was cautious in places and too fast in others, but it was difficult to stay in Loeb's line because it wasn't always the line I wanted to follow.
"The puncture was my mistake. I came into a fast, narrow corner too quickly and hit the bank hard. The tyre didn't stand a chance. I was right not to stop because we only lost about 50 seconds. Third is a good position for the second leg because the roads will clean even more than today. I know tomorrow's stages well and this rally isn't over by a long way," added Hirvonen.
Latvala barely had time to settle into the rally. "About 3km after the start of the opening stage, Miikka misread a pace note and called a left corner much faster than it was. I approached the bend far too quickly, and by the time I realised it was slower and tighter it was too late. I tried to brake, but the road was slippery and the car went backwards into the ditch and hit a wall," he explained.
"The car ended back on the road but the impact damaged the left steering arm. We drove to the finish and tried to make repairs for the next stage, but there was little we could do. We tried to drive the stage but it was too much for the suspension wishbone and steering arm, which snapped after 6km. I don't blame Miikka. I've made plenty of mistakes behind the wheel and every co-driver has made an error at some point. We all try to be perfect, but we're only human," added Latvala.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr are 12th in the team's other Fiesta RS WRC. The Team Abu Dhabi driver admitted he struggled to judge the braking points this morning, but had no major troubles and climbed the order rapidly this afternoon.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said: "Mikko is in a strong position. This is always a difficult rally and I believe there is everything still to fight for. His puncture was a setback and the team has a lot of work to do tonight to repair the bodywork. It was disappointing to lose Jari-Matti so early. Miikka made an uncharacteristic error, but they will return tomorrow."
News from other Ford Fiesta RS WRC teams
M-Sport Stobart Ford drivers Mads Østberg and Jonas Andersson are fifth, with team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin holding eighth, despite brake difficulties. Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor, driving the team's third car, stopped in the penultimate stage after a troubled day. A small fire, caused when the Norwegian driver clipped a bridge, was followed by damper and driveshaft troubles before engine problems ended their day. FERM Power Tools pairing Dennis Kuipers and Frederic Miclotte are 13th. P-G Andersson and Emil Axelsson dropped more than 16 minutes when a steering arm broke during the second stage and they stopped to fit a spare carried in the car. Evgeny Novikov and Stéphane Prévot were as high as third before rolling into retirement in the penultimate stage, while Munchi's Ford duo Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc retired on the afternoon's opening stage after hitting a bridge and breaking the rear right wheel.
I know tomorrow's stages well and this rally isn't over by a long way.
The second leg covers more familiar territory in the Sassari region and is the longest of the rally with 143.06km of competition. Drivers leave Olbia at 08.00 and tackle two identical loops of three stages, split by service in the town. The second test in each loop includes the spectacular Monte Lerno jump. Competitors return to Olbia for the final overnight halt at 18.30.