Ford duo retains command at head of Rally Japan leaderboard BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team maintained its firm grip of the leading positions in Rally Japan during today's hugely challenging second leg in the forests near Sapporo. Day one ...
Ford duo retains command at head of Rally Japan leaderboard
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team maintained its firm grip of the leading positions in Rally Japan during today's hugely challenging second leg in the forests near Sapporo. Day one pacesetters Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen retained their lead of this 14th and penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The Finns headed team-mates and fellow countrymen Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila by 15.5sec as they reached the final overnight halt of this three-day event.
After yesterday's shortened leg north-east of Sapporo, the largest city on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, today's action moved south for tests near Chitose and the coastal town of Tomokamai. In contrast to yesterday's narrow and twisty roads, today's competition was held over faster and wider gravel tracks, many of which cut up badly and became deeply rutted for the second pass this afternoon following heavy overnight rain.
Drivers tackled 10 stages covering 156.78km, eight in the countryside before two more passes over a super special stage in the spectacular ultra-modern Sapporo Dome.
Twenty-eight-year-old Hirvonen started today with a 26.2sec lead but lost a small part of that after swiping a fence with the rear of his Focus RS WRC on the opening test. He avoided problems on the remaining three stages to end the morning loop with a 16.9sec lead over Latvala. Despite deteriorating conditions, Hirvonen won two afternoon stages to extend his advantage, before Latvala narrowed it again through the two Dome tests.
"It was quite a nervewracking day," he said. "The roads were much faster and it took a while for me to get used to that after the narrow, twisty stages yesterday. This afternoon there were ruts everywhere but I couldn't afford to ease my pace too much. The conditions were difficult and Jari-Matti drove quickly behind me. The strangest moment came this morning when I lost my rhythm after I had to slow when two deer ran across the road in front of me.
"I came to Japan looking for a victory but even if I achieve that tomorrow, it looks like that won't help my championship challenge now. Tomorrow's stages are soft but they shouldn't be as slippery, so I hope we have an easier time," added Hirvonen.
Latvala powered to fastest time on the morning's third test and added another stage win this afternoon as the 23-year-old focused his attentions on staying ahead of third-placed Sebastien Loeb. "I succeeded in doing that. Maybe he drove carefully in the ruts but, if so, it made my life easier. I needed to drive fast because I didn't want Seb close to me, but equally I didn't want to put Mikko under pressure, so I followed Seb's split times in the stages," he said.
"I drove cautiously through the first two stages and then stepped up my pace," said Latvala. "I wanted to find the right balance and not risk too much, before increasing my speed when I found my confidence. This afternoon I punctured a tyre on the first stage of the loop so I drove a little more cautiously because I had only one spare in the car and another puncture would have meant the end of my rally. In these conditions the only thing to do was follow the ruts and be brave. The tactic was to keep all four wheels in the ruts, like a train track," added Latvala.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on another positive day. "It was a very controlled performance from both drivers, dictating the pace from the front. Both delivered measured drives, especially in such difficult conditions on the stages," he said.
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Behind Hirvonen and Latvala, Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) retained third, the Frenchman's only problem coming this afternoon when he dropped time on a badly rutted stage. Petter Solberg (Subaru) climbed to fourth this morning ahead of team-mate Chris Atkinson, but retired with smashed rear suspension after hitting a hole and spinning in the final countryside test. Atkinson survived a 360 degree spin after hitting the same hole. Stobart driver Matthew Wilson (Ford) climbed to fifth after a steady day, with Toni Gardemeister (Suzuki) rounding off the top six. Per-Gunnar Andersson (Suzuki) dropped two minutes and two places with a puncture this afternoon. The Swede is now seventh. Munchi's driver Henning Solberg (Ford) retired from sixth after stage 17 with broken suspension.
Drivers face another nine stages during the final day's competition. After a 06.00 start from Sapporo, the route again heads south towards the cost at Tomokamai. Competitors face two identical loops of four tests, split by a final pass through the Sapporo Dome super special stage, providing 96.43km of competition. The finish takes place in the Dome at 15.00.