Ford World Rally Team won seven of the nine speed tests in the opening leg of the Acropolis Rally of Greece as both pairings ended today’s 706km marathon in the top three positions. Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila won five stages to lie second, just 6.5sec from the lead, while team-mates Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson claimed two victories to hold third.
This sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship lived up to its reputation as the toughest in the 13-rally series as several top drivers encountered mechanical problems. But remarkably the top three are covered by less than 18sec after 194.36km of rough road competition in the mountains surrounding the Gulf of Corinth, west of Athens.
After last night’s opening special stage near the rally base in Loutraki, competitors endured almost 16 hours at the wheel today. The route took them around the Gulf to the coastal town of Itea before journeying back to Loutraki after eight more tests. They were allowed just two 15-minute service opportunities in Itea, during which only spare parts carried in the rally car could be used for repairs.
Latvala showed no signs of discomfort from the broken collarbone that forced him to miss the last round in Argentina. The 27-year-old Finn showed no signs of rust either, adding two more stage wins this morning in his Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car to last night’s opening victory. His only blemish came on the final stage of the loop when he stalled the engine and overshot a muddy junction.
The 10sec dropped in that incident cost him the lead and Sébastien Loeb extended his advantage over the next two stages as Latvala felt less comfortable on roads made muddy by yesterday’s rain. However, Latvala reduced the 10.1sec gap on the final three stages, being used for a second time, and two more wins brought the margin down to just 6.5sec.
“Apart from the overshoot, it was a good comeback” he said. “I had no pain in my shoulder, although I could feel my left arm was tired because it has less power. As I hadn’t competed for a while I was concerned I wouldn’t be fast enough, but those worries quickly disappeared. It was a good battle for the lead. It was more like fighting in Finland, where every tenth is important, than driving in Greece.
“When I missed the junction, I wasn’t prepared for it to be so slippery. When I braked the engine stalled and the car overshot the corner, but fortunately there was nothing to hit. It was surprisingly damp in places and I didn’t have enough traction. The tyres didn’t warm up quickly enough at the start of the stage but once they had heated up, I was able to pull time back.
“In the middle loop I carried two spare wheels and in hindsight perhaps one would have been better. Both stages contained plenty of uphill sections and I think the extra 25kg from a second spare made a difference. It’s normal to carry two spares in Greece because of the high tyre wear in the heat, but temperatures were cooler than usual and the tyres didn’t wear as much,” added Latvala.
Solberg was anxious to regain time lost following a poor tyre choice last night. After restarting in fifth he won the morning’s final stage to take third. However, he lost 10sec and a place after a massive impact with a rock in a compression which bent the rear suspension, broke a wheel rim and punctured a tyre.
“It was the biggest moment of my career in terms of shock,” explained Solberg. “I didn’t have the rock marked in my pace notes and I can’t say what happened because I don’t know. There was a massive impact, the car flew into the air and I thought my rally was finished. The boys did a fantastic job to repair it in such a short time and I’m sure they can complete the job tonight. It proves how strong the car is that it can survive an impact like that, and it’s encouraging with tomorrow’s rough stages ahead.
With the suspension straightened, the 37-year-old Norwegian added another fastest time in the final loop to regain third. “Considering the time I lost last night and today, then I couldn’t be in a better position. It will be crucial to avoid problems tomorrow and push in the places where it is safe to do so and where I feel I can take time,” added Solberg.
Ford World Rally Team director Malcolm Wilson said: “Today was much better than our Fridays have been in recent rallies! I’m pleased to see Jari-Matti back and in top form. There was a lot of damage to the underside of Petter’s car, and I must pay tribute to the technicians who did a remarkable job at service to keep him going. Tomorrow is another long day and beyond doubt the roughest of the rally.”
News from other Ford teams
M-Sport Ford World Rally Team’s Evgeny Novikov and Denis Giraudet lie fifth in a Fiesta RS WRC despite afternoon problems with a broken connection on the FIA log-in box and a broken gear stick. The Czech Ford National Team car of Martin Prokop and Zdenek Hrůza is sixth, despite an incident-packed day that included going off the road, a spin and a broken anti-roll bar. Adapta World Rally Team’s Mads Østberg and Jonas Andersson held fifth until they dropped three minutes in the final stage after sliding wide and getting stuck. M-Sport Ford’s Ott Tänak and Kuldar Sikk lost time after going off the road following a pace note mix-up, before an oil leak in a differential ended their day. Brazil World Rally Team’s Daniel Oliveira and Carlos Magalhaes were forced to stop after today’s opening stage due to illness.
The second leg is based on the Peloponnese peninsula, across the famous Corinth Canal from Loutraki. Competitors restart at 07.30 for two identical clockwise loops around the peninsula, split by a return to Loutraki for an early afternoon service. Each loop contains four stages, including one never used in the rally previously, and the eight tests cover 149.56km. Drivers return to Loutraki for the final overnight halt at 21.05.