Hirvonen on course for Sardinia podium as Latvala flies for Ford
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will start the final day of Rally Italia Sardegna firmly in contention for a podium finish following a strong showing in their Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car on Saturday’s six demanding gravel speed tests. The Finns climbed to second and are engaged in an exciting three-car battle with just one day remaining of this fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila restarted on day two under SupeRally rules following their retirement yesterday morning. They gave an impressive demonstration of their pace and the speed of the Ford Fiesta RS WRC by claiming five stage victories.
Following Friday’s eight special stages around the town of Oristano in the west of the Mediterranean island, crews tackled 143.06km of competitive action in the Sassari region. The longest day of the rally comprised two identical loops of three stages separated by service in Olbia’s cruise ship terminal on Sardinia’s north east coast. Bright sunshine and warm ambient temperatures were once again a feature of the day, which included the spectacular Monte Lerno jump.
I was hoping to be closer tonight so all I can do now is drive flat out and fight like hell tomorrow.
Hirvonen started day two in fourth overall, 53.1sec adrift of the overall lead. But a faultless charge by the 30-year-old meant he was able to climb to second and narrow his deficit to top spot to 28.3sec by the time he returned to the overnight halt in Olbia.
He had hoped to be closer to leader and championship rival Sebastien Loeb, but admitted the Frenchman’s determination to remain in front meant he was unable to make further progress.
“I was hoping to be closer tonight so all I can do now is drive flat out and fight like hell tomorrow,” said Hirvonen. “I've been happy with my pace today and that looks good for the future. I'm feeling really confident and happy to be back in the fight for victory.
“In the first stage this afternoon I thought the road cleaning was the same as this morning, but after that Loeb took some big risks and it worked for him. Two years ago here we got caught in the dust clouds on day three but the rally is earlier this year and the temperatures are lower, so I am hoping I will be okay tomorrow morning," he added.
While Hirvonen is braced for another close battle on day three, he could actually start with a reduced margin to Loeb after Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson confirmed an enquiry has been lodged with the rally organisers concerning Hirvonen’s time on stage 10, which was slower than the time recorded by both co-driver Lehtinen and other data.
I tried to avoid big risks today and was driving at 98 per cent – I left the other two per cent in the service park!
With his hopes of claiming his fifth podium in as many starts this season over following his retirement yesterday, Latvala set about confirming the progress he had made to the set-up of his Fiesta RS WRC during a test session before the event. His tally of five stage wins elevated him to 26th overall and a potential manufacturers’ championship point for Ford.
“I feel like I've had a good day!” he said. “I really love the stages on this rally and the feeling has been really good with the car. Our road position was perfect for setting fastest times in the morning, but we had to push much harder in the afternoon to achieve them.
“I tried to avoid big risks today and was driving at 98 per cent – I left the other two per cent in the service park! I got a puncture on SS11 when we hit a big rock and had to drive 5km with a slowly deflating tyre. It was a very fast sixth-gear section and we went into a right hand corner where a sharp rock pierced the shoulder of the tyre. Otherwise the Michelin tyres have again been very strong on the rough roads, which is encouraging.”
Abu Dhabi’s Khalid Al Qassimi and Northern Irish navigator Michael Orr are 12th overnight and in touching distance of a championship point. They adopted a cautious approach throughout the day in their Fiesta RS WRC on the rough island tracks.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said: “We've shown the performance of the Fiesta RS WRC today with Jari-Matti setting five out of six fastest stage times, which is fantastic. Mikko is locked in an intense battle with all still to play for. Both cars have run perfectly and it's been a faultless day from both crews. It will be a difficult day tomorrow, not just to try and win the event, but to maintain second position. I'm pleased that Mikko has reduced the deficit today and we're looking forward to a great battle tomorrow.”
News from other Ford teams
M-Sport Stobart Ford drivers Mads Østberg and Jonas Andersson hold fifth overnight after another encouraging display in their Fiesta RS WRC. Team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin overcame the brake and steering issues that held them back on day one to occupy ninth. FERM Power Tools pairing Dennis Kuipers and Frederic Miclotte were slowed by a front-left puncture on Saturday afternoon but were otherwise happy with their performance. P-G Andersson and Emil Axelsson recorded several top 10 stage times as they made up 12 places in their recovery from the broken steering arm they suffered after striking an earth bank on Friday morning. Evgeny Novikov and Stéphane Prévot and Munchi's Ford duo Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc both restarted under SupeRally rules after their mechanics worked into the early hours of Saturday morning to fix their cars after they both crashed yesterday. Sadly there was no restart for Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor due to engine failure on day one.
The final leg is the shortest, covering just 65.58km of competition close to Olbia. Drivers leaved the town at 06.00 for an initial loop of three stages. After service back in the town, they repeat the short 8.24km Gallura Power Stage, which is broadcast live on television and offers bonus points to the fastest three drivers. Competitors return to Olbia for the finish at 13.10.