Hirvonen sits pretty for Ford after exciting opening in Argentina
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are well-placed in second, just over five seconds from the lead, after today's enthralling opening leg of Rally Argentina. The Finns twice led this fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car during a leg in which four different drivers topped the leaderboard and the lead switched hands on an amazing eight occasions.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila lie sixth in their Focus RS World Rally Car after a cautious return to competition following their violent accident earlier this month in Portugal. Nevertheless, Latvala won two of the leg's nine speed tests to add to Hirvonen's one victory, and between them the Focus RS WRC drivers led the rally for five special stages.
Argentina is one of the WRC's classic events and almost 15,000 fans watched the opening action last night in a spectacular 2.40km test inside Cordoba's international soccer stadium. The action continued today as competitors headed north of the event's Carlos Paz base for two loops of four speed tests in the hills and mountains of the Punilla Valley, covering a further 139.76km.
An unusual spell of hot weather in the south American autumn left the gravel roads in rough condition, and huge dust trails spiralled into the sky with the passage of each car. Temperatures were more than 10ºC below the 27ºC experienced yesterday and cloudy skies delivered a few drops of rain in the stages and heavier downpours in the Carlos Paz service park.
Competition was fierce over the rocky tracks this morning. Hirvonen initially held second before moving into the lead midway through the loop. He returned to the lunchtime service with a lead of just 0.6sec as a tightly-knit pack of five cars was covered by less than 10sec. "It wasn't a perfect drive but the surface was soft and dusty with many rocks in the first two stages. I could have pushed harder but there were places where I had to be careful and drive round them. The car took some heavy hits but it was strong enough to withstand those," he explained.
The 28-year-old dropped to second on the opening afternoon test, but regained top spot with fastest time on the next stage. The positions changed again over the final two tests but Hirvonen was content with his overnight position.
"I didn't attack too hard because the roads were too rough and I wanted to preserve the car. It was very rough this afternoon, although the rain kept the dust down. None of the drivers had any split times during the final stage because of a problem so I just drove at a good speed. Maybe it would be better to be behind Sebastien Loeb in the start order tomorrow, but the surface is soft so hopefully road sweeping will not play too much of a part. I'm looking forward to a good fight," he added.
Following his Portuguese accident, Latvala's target is a steady run throughout the weekend as he regains confidence. Nevertheless, the 24-year-old Finn took full advantage of better conditions further down the start order to set fastest time in his Focus RS WRC through the opening stage and take a 2.1sec lead over Hirvonen. He eased his pace for the rest of the morning to return to Carlos Paz at lunchtime in fifth, 9.1sec behind his colleague.
"Caution is the name of the game this weekend," said Latvala. "Maybe everybody else drove steadily in the first stage. After that I decided to ease my pace. I had to fight my natural spirit in slowing down but sometimes you have to lose to know how to win. I feel comfortable. I'm not pushing and I know I could go faster, but I also know it's not the best moment to do it! It's important I aim for third or fourth and Malcolm Wilson (team director) reminded me of that after the opening stage this morning.
The 24-year-old dropped almost 50sec on the first afternoon test when he damaged a rear tyre after a jump and a rising water temperature in his car's cooling system prompted further caution as Latvala completed the day 66.4sec behind his team-mate.
"I approached a crest too quickly and the car landed on the rear right wheel. The impact pushed the tyre from the rim and I drove for 12km like that. Then something blocked the car's cooling system and the water temperature rose to 115ºC so I eased off. This afternoon there were many rocks hitting the car's sump guard and today was the most difficult I've experienced in Argentina. I had no fear after my accident but found it difficult to regain my rhythm. I put less information into my pace notes and they worked well, as I don't have too much detail to absorb," said Latvala.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on a strong start. "It was a great day for Mikko and he's in a good position for tomorrow's technical stages. It was a good confidence building day for Jari-Matti, which, coupled with two fastest stage times have given him assurance going into the second leg. But nothing is ever quiet with Jari-Matti. He won two stages, suffered a puncture and damaged his car's cooling package - and that was supposed to be a steady day!" said Wilson.
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Stobart drivers Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud lie fifth in their Focus RS WRC, Solberg just one place behind brother Petter, with team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin in seventh. Just one place behind are Munchi's drivers and local favourites Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc, despite stalling their engine on the opening test and a loose steering wheel later in the morning.
The second day takes competitors south-west of Carlos Paz for some of the season's classic stages. After leaving at 07.00, they face two identical loops of four tests before a second pass over the super special stage at Cordoba stadium. The bulk of the action is based high in the Traslasierra mountains where the dramatic rocky landscape of the classic El Condor and Giulio Cesare tests provides stunning scenery. Cars return to Carlos Paz for the final overnight halt at 20.30 after 141.64km of competition.