Ford World Rally Team drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila ended a remarkably savage opening day of Rally de España in third.
Heavy rain transformed the dry gravel roads into a muddy mess, and after a careful morning the Finns excelled in treacherously slippery conditions this afternoon to climb the leaderboard in their Fiesta RS World Rally Car.
However, the privately-entered Fiesta RS WRC of Mads Østberg and Jonas Andersson avoided the carnage to lead this final round of the FIA World Rally Championship by 27.2sec.
Traditionally a pure asphalt event, the rally has evolved in recent years to include a mostly gravel opening leg west of the Salou base.
After last night’s start ceremony in Barcelona, drivers tackled five speed tests that were punctuated with a few short asphalt sections. The day ended with a mixed surface special stage along Salou seafront, making a total of 150.22km.
Dry weather was forecast for most of the day and Latvala last night opted for a low start position to take advantage of roads swept clean of loose gravel.
However early morning rain threw everyone’s calculations into disarray as vast quantities of rain drenched the hillsides.
Having opted for hard compound tyres on the front of his Fiesta RS WRC and soft rubber on the rear, Latvala was fastest through the opening stage.
But as conditions deteriorated, his start position proved a disadvantage as the roads became increasingly muddier and standing water posed a threat of aquaplaning.
Latvala adopted a cautious strategy through the next two stages and despite a spin at a muddy hairpin near the finish of the second stage, the 27-year-old Finn returned to service in fifth, 55.1sec from the lead.
“The rain removed the slippery loose gravel, but it was replaced with standing water instead,” he said. “In the last test there was a 12 minute gap between the start times of the car ahead and myself.
It was raining so hard that the ruts had filled with water again when I started and it was so slippery. I couldn’t drive any faster in those conditions.
“If the rain had stopped, as we all expected, my tyre choice would have been ideal, but in the heavy rain, soft tyres all round would have been the right choice,” he added.
Although the rain eased this afternoon, conditions in the two repeated stages were even more slippery as the first pass over the roads had generated even more mud.
However, with soft tyres now fitted, Latvala was second fastest in both stages to return to Salou 47.0sec from the lead.
“That was one of the most difficult days of the year. I changed my driving style all the time because the conditions and grip levels changed so frequently, and the muddy clay surface was like ice.
I had many close escapes, but I finished the day and not many people managed that. The weather is likely to be unsettled again tomorrow, so it won’t get any easier on the asphalt,” said Latvala.
Solberg was fourth in the opening test, but the 37-year-old Norwegian was one of several drivers to retire after hitting a rock in a deep rut that was obscured by water.
The impact damaged his car’s front left suspension and he retired from the action. He will restart tomorrow under Rally 2 regulations with 25min penalties.
“I feel so bad,” admitted Solberg. “Conditions were treacherous but up to the point where we had the impact, the stage was going perfectly.
I was driving well within myself and setting good split times when we came around a fourth-gear left corner about 20km after the start.
We were dragged into a big rut that was full of water and an exposed rock was hidden in the rut. We immediately saw it would be impossible to fix the damage.”
Ford World Rally Team director Malcolm Wilson praised Latvala’s afternoon recovery. “He fought back extremely well to climb into the battle at the top and with two days remaining there should be plenty of excitement to come.
When he saw so many people off the road this morning, he decided to be cautious and focus on finishing the day, and that proved the right decision,” he said.
Ford World Rally Team