Hirvonen leads Ford's double points finish in Germany
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team secured a double points finish in Rallye Deutschland today after a difficult weekend on Germany's asphalt roads. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished fourth in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, with team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila claiming fifth on this 10th round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
The result meant the lead of the drivers' championship changed hands for the sixth time in the enthralling battle for the title between Hirvonen and Sebastien Loeb. Loeb regained top spot by just four points from Hirvonen with five rounds remaining. In the manufacturers' series, the battle is just as tense with Ford lying second, eight points from the lead.
Trier, Germany's oldest city, hosted this first foray onto asphalt since January's opening road in Monte Carlo. Three days of competition covering 352.89km comprised narrow and bumpy vineyard tracks on the banks of the Mosel river, flowing roads through the Saarland countryside and demanding tank training tracks in the Baumholder military area. Frequent surface changes posed tough challenges for both the drivers and Pirelli's PZero tyres but the forecast heavy rain failed to materialise, removing one difficulty from competitors' minds.
Hirvonen, for whom asphalt is his least-favoured surface, ended Friday's opening leg in second on the debut of the 2008-specification Focus RS WRC. He slipped to third yesterday but punctured a rear tyre after hitting a hole in the final few kilometres to drop into fourth behind Francois Duval. He fought tooth and nail to catch the Belgian on today's final leg in the vineyards, comprising five speed tests and 84.97km of competition, but could not close the gap, ending 10.1sec behind.
"I was on the limit this morning to try to catch Duval," admitted Hirvonen. "I had a big escape. I had a corner marked in my notes with a small cut, but I took a big cut. It was a high-speed bend and the car was up on two wheels for a long time. It was close! On the third stage I saw I was three seconds down on Duval at the third split section and decided to ease off and settle for fourth. I didn't want to make any mistakes chasing third and risk losing what I had.
"I set some great stage times on Friday and with a bit more consistency I will be able to fight for a top- place on this surface, but I couldn't match the speed of the top two here. But I feel my asphalt driving has improved and it was unfortunate I lost time with a puncture last night," he added.
Latvala endured a frustrating weekend. After ending the opening day in fifth, he rolled his Focus RS WRC yesterday after hitting a ditch at a chicane and slid to 10th. He regained a place, despite losing a minute when he punctured the rear left tyre this morning after landing on a kerb following a jump. Latvala admits asphalt is his weakest surface and the 23-year-old Finn struggled to regain his rhythm and confidence after yesterday's accident.
"It was frustrating," admitted Latvala. "It started well on Friday and I had a good position and feeling with the car but yesterday and today were nightmares. At least I increased my asphalt experience. It's the most difficult of the asphalt rallies as the surface changes all the time. I learned that on aggressive asphalt I'm OK, but on a smoother surface I'm far away in my car set-up and confidence level.
"I had a new experience in comparing Pirelli's hard and soft compound tyres. They did a good job for us and were strong. This rally also showed me how important mental preparation is. I need to work on that this week before Rally New Zealand and start from zero again to move forwards. I also want to complete some asphalt training before the next rally on that surface in Spain in October," he added.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 14th in another Focus RS.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said: "We made a good start on Friday with a terrific performance from Mikko. But a lack of experience on the most difficult asphalt rally in the championship, with a constantly changing road surface, resulted in us not taking as many points as we would have liked. However, the drivers have learned a lot for the final two rallies on this surface."
Ford of Europe motorsport director Mark Deans looked forward to the next round in New Zealand. "We've relinquished the lead in the manufacturers' championship here but the fight to win it back begins in New Zealand in a fortnight. The gravel roads there are more favoured by our drivers and we'll look to reclaim the series lead immediately," he said.
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Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) claimed his seventh consecutive German victory, finishing 47.7sec ahead of team-mate Dani Sordo, despite stalling his engine on the second stage. Stobart driver Francois Duval (Ford) claimed the final podium place on his second appearance of the season after winning four stages today. Behind Hirvonen, Petter Solberg (Subaru) took fifth ahead of team-mate Chris Atkinson, who dropped 40sec after he stalled on the opening stage and then struggled with a broken damper.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi faces its longest journey of the season when the championship returns to gravel on Rally New Zealand. The third event this month is based in Hamilton on 28 - 31 August.