By David C. Schilke
Ford holds first and second after opening leg of Rally de Portugal
Ford ruled the first leg of Rally Portugal in the third round of the World Rally Championship. It was a battle between the two factory drivers with Mikko Hirvonen taking the early lead but in the afternoon stages, it was his fellow Finn, Jari-Matti Latvala, who took over the top spot from Citroen rival Sebastien Ogier.
It's a great position for the team to be in tonight.
The Ford Abu Dhabi Fiesta RS’s were strong today but never count out Citroen, especially with the seven-time champion Sebastien Loeb lurking in third and upcoming ace Ogier fourth.
The first stage was the showpiece speed test last night, won by Hirvonen, before the drivers hunkered down for the real action today. The weather held up, even with overcast skies and by the end of the first loop of today's stages, the top four were close. In the final stage Citroen might have played some strategy by letting Latvala and Hirvonen slip ahead to avoid running first on the road tomorrow.
Latvala made his run for the lead despite having memories of two years ago of his worst WRC crash during at this event but this year, he was able to focus and take control as he recalled his feelings this morning: "I watched that section twice on our recce videos before leaving the hotel this morning. 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!"
After taking 2 stage wins today, Latvala will be the sweeper as he commented, "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."
Hirvonen is 11.5 seconds off his teammate in second after sweeping today’s roads clear. The Finn failed to carry his momentum from Thursday’s win but was able to keep in touch with the day’s pacesetters. Tomorrow Latvala will lead the field, allowing Hirvonen a chance to re-take control of the rally. Provided he can keep the Citroen duo behind him.
Hrivonen is pleased with the performance of the new Ford Fiesta and his confidence shows, "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.”
While Loeb never earned a stage win today the Frenchman has kept himself in the top four while his competitors jostled around him. Loeb held second to Ogier before Latvala charged ahead in the afternoon, leaving the champ wondering about his pace compared to Ford. He’ll start tomorrow third on the road, 2.2 seconds from Hirvonen.
“That was a good day,” said Loeb. “The gaps are very small and I’m happy with my position. It was a great scrap. We didn’t lose much time over the whole leg. I was rather surprised by the lack of sweeping which usually penalizes the leader severely. I hope that there’ll be a good line tomorrow. We’ll see, but we’ve got every reason to be satisfied with our start to the rally.”
Before the leg’s final test Ogier had a small gap over Latvala but the Citroen team decided to slow Ogier down rather than having him push to keep the lead overnight. Starting fourth tomorrow may benefit the young Frenchman as Latvala and Hirvonen lose time out front sweeping the road. It’s anticipated the six stages tomorrow will be much harder on the leaders than seen today. Ogier will have over 16 seconds to make up if he wants to take the lead.
Ogier is ready for any contingency, “From what we’ve seen since reconnaissance began, I feel that we’re well placed. We’ll see if I’m right, but we won’t know till tomorrow. We’ll have to keep up the pace and see how the gaps evolve.”
Petter Solberg might have been in the mix for the win, but bad luck played him a different hand. After winning stage two the privateer Citroen driver suffered four punctures before running out of spare tires and having to retire on the final stage or risk losing more time running out of tires completely. When Solberg was able to run trouble free the Norwegian placed within the top three fastest times. Starting under SuperRally rules tomorrow Solberg will hope for better luck in the next two legs.
“I just don’t believe it, how is it possible to pick up four punctures in one day, remarked Solberg. “There are two more days to go and we have shown that we have the speed so I will push hard.”
One brother’s retirement is another’s gain. Henning Solberg moved into fifth overall for the Stobart M-Sport team when Petter quit the day early. He probably will not be able to advance beyond that spot, as he’s close to two minutes back on the timesheet.
“The car has been going well – this is my first proper time on gravel as we had so many problems in Mexico so I am happy with how everything is going,” said Henning.
Stobart teammate Matthew Wilson slots sixth while seventh is held by Armindo Araujo in a MINI John Cooper Works Super 2000. Araujo and the newcomer Brazil World Rally Team, are shaking down the MINI chassis before the full WRC works team makes its debut in Italy this year.
Meanwhile in the Production class Kiwi Hayden Paddon has dominated the first leg in his Subaru, earning five out of six stage wins today and controlling a gap of over half a minute to Anders Grondal in second place.
“It’s been a great day,” says the 23-year-old from Geraldine who holds 12th position overall. “We’re leading by more than 30 seconds while still learning the new car and making small changes. We’ll be trying to build on this lead tomorrow.”
See: Leg 1 results