Hirvonen heads Ford's opening day charge in Rally Japan
The heavily-rutted gravel roads in today's opening leg of Rally Japan did little to hinder BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team which finished the day in second and fourth. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, winners here in the previous two editions of the rally, are second in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car with team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila fourth in a similar car.
The soft and sandy tracks near Sapporo, on Japan's most northerly island of Hokkaido, cut up badly during this morning's opening pass. Conditions were even more difficult when the speed tests were repeated this afternoon as the ruts became deeper. But both Hirvonen and Latvala encountered no difficulties, Latvala in particular finding improved grip in the corners in the softer sections.
This 10th round of the FIA World Rally Championship returned to the series after a year's absence. It began in spectacular fashion last night with two short purpose-built special stages inside the 67,400 capacity Sapporo Dome, usually the venue for top-level baseball and football. It continued today when drivers travelled south of the city for two identical loops of three tests. The day ended with a further two stages inside the Dome, taking the competitive distance for the leg to 122.74km.
Conditions were hot, dry and humid and the sandy surface in the forests quickly broke up. Hirvonen was second after last night's short curtain-raisers, and enjoyed a strong morning to end the opening loop in fourth, just 13.4sec from the lead. The 30-year-old Finn won two of the three countryside tests this afternoon to climb to second and is only 9.4sec from top spot.
"I've had some difficult rallies recently and to be back in the fight for victory feels good," said Hirvonen. "My plan was to build my pace slowly as the day progressed. I'm sure the guys behind will attack tomorrow, but I'm ready for it. In places this morning the surface was very soft, but in others it was quite slippery. In the soft sections, it felt as though the car was being sucked into the sand and not going anywhere. It would have been insane to drive flat out though the deep ruts this afternoon.
"Tomorrow's stages are similar in their characteristics. Road sweeping for the early starters was an issue but having said that, second wasn't a bad start position. I will be second in the order tomorrow, so I'll have to wait and see if that has an effect," he added.
Latvala restarted in fourth this morning. The 25-year-old Finn dropped to fifth on the opening stage after technical difficulties meant he was unable to receive his rivals' split times into the car. However, with the problem resolved, Latvala relished the soft conditions to regain time and end the loop 20.3sec behind the leader.
"I had a comfortable speed in the first stage but had no split times coming into the car, and I was shocked by the times of the others at the finish," he said. "I could have driven faster, and would have done so if I had been able to see the splits. It was frustrating. I had a good feeling in the corners where conditions were soft with big ruts. The grip was good there, so I pushed hard in the ruts and it worked well."
Latvala was fastest on the afternoon's opening stage, paving the way for the BP Ford team to take a clean sweep of wins in the repeated countryside tests. It promoted him to fourth, and he maintained a fast and consistent pace during the rest of the day to head into the overnight halt 22.4sec from the lead.
"There were some strange sections where the corners were lined by big banks and I used them to carry good speed through the bends. It was like a motocross circuit in places. I feel comfortable in the car and I want to climb the order tomorrow. However, the positions are close so it won't be easy to achieve that," added Latvala.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr rolled the team's other Focus RS World Rally Car just 2km after the start of the day's opening stage and retired. Damage to the car was too great for the pair to restart under SupeRally rules tomorrow.
"I entered a long, fourth gear corner a little too fast," said Al Qassimi. "The road was narrow and as the car slid into a ditch, the impact broke a brake calliper. That threw us against a tree and we rolled. The car ended on its side, right on the edge of the road. Although we weren't hurt, we couldn't get out of the car initially. The car is badly damaged on Michael's side from the impact against the tree. It's frustrating for the rally to end after just 2km, but I can't change that."
News from other Ford teams
Stobart M-Sport Ford drivers Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor lie seventh in a Focus RS WRC, Solberg posting his first stage win for 18 months. Team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin are 1min 54.7sec behind in eighth, the Britons dropping time with a spin this morning. Munchi's Ford duo Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc are ninth, 29.6sec behind Wilson.
The second leg again journeys south of Sapporo to the same territory as today. Drivers leave Sapporo at 09.00 for two identical loops of three speed tests, including two passes over the 33.76km Kamuycep, the longest stage of the rally. As today, the leg ends with two further tests inside the Sapporo Dome. Competitors return for the final overnight halt at 19.58 after 125.12km of competition.