Ford's Hirvonen poised for final day showdown in Rally Japan
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team duo Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are poised for a thrilling face-off for the podium positions in Rally Japan tomorrow after ending today's second leg in second place. The Finns will start the short final day of this 10th round of the FIA World Rally Championship just 3.7sec from the lead in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, with only 5.4sec covering the leading trio.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila looked on course to take a solid lead into the final day. They topped the leaderboard in their Focus RS WRC and were pulling clear of their rivals in the longest speed test of the rally this afternoon only for a broken front right driveshaft to halt their charge. They dropped more than 30sec during the remaining speed tests and will start the final day in fifth.
Today's action was based close to Lake Shikotsuko, south of the rally base of Sapporo. Under overcast skies and in humid conditions, drivers tackled two identical loops of three gravel tests in the forests, before returning to Sapporo Dome for two further passes over the indoor arena test. They faced 125.12km of competition, the longest day of the rally.
Hirvonen started in second but lost 10sec due to a spin in the opening stage. He reached the midpoint service in fourth, but just 5.7sec from the lead as the fight for top spot became closer than ever. The 30-year-old climbed into second on the final countryside stage and closed in on the lead by winning the final test in the Dome.
"We had a good fight today, we had a good fight yesterday and we'll have a good fight tomorrow," he said. "It's fantastic to drive when you have to be on the limit for every kilometre of every stage and flat out will be the only option again tomorrow. Let's see who has the last word, but I can't wait.
"The roads were dry and the surface was loose this morning and my high road position definitely cost me time. I lost time with a spin. The rear of the car jumped out of a rut and I couldn't turn into the next corner. Rather than try to recover it and risk an accident, I simply let the car spin. I haven't felt great today and haven't eaten anything all day but I feel better now. I'm confident second in the start order will be an advantage in the morning," he added.
Latvala restarted in fourth and sped to fastest time in the long Kamuycep test to climb to second. The 25-year-old Finn headed to the service park having closed the gap to leader Petter Solberg from 22.4sec to just 5.9sec. However, as the drivers reached Sapporo, Solberg was handed a 10sec penalty for a jump start to promote Latvala into the lead.
"I love these close fights!" he enthused. "Petter's penalty made the battle even closer and more interesting. My start position helped. I thought road position wouldn't make much difference but the last two stages in particular had a lot of loose gravel on the surface. The guys ahead of me had to sweep that gravel off the road and I had a cleaner and faster line."
On the second pass through Kamuycep, Latvala was six seconds faster than his rivals for victory heading into the final section when driveshaft problems intervened. He ended the stage still in the lead, but the time lost in the final countryside stage and two tests in the Dome, in which he also spun once, dropped him back.
"I was about 5km from the finish when the steering didn't feel right but I drove on to the end," he said. "The driveshaft had broken, leaving no drive to the front right wheel. There was nothing we could do for the final three stages. The car turned well into right corners, with a little oversteer like a two-wheel drive car. In left bends it understeered. It was OK in fast sections and under braking but the tighter, slower corners killed my times because I didn't have the traction.
"Sometimes life can be hard. I had a great rhythm in the stage and thought I could build a good lead, but it all turned round and on the final stages, instead of fighting for victory, I was battling to lose as little time as possible. I wasn't concerned about being first on the road tomorrow because the roads have a different surface to those of today," added Latvala.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said the team changed the transmission and suspension on Latvala's car in service tonight. "It's a shame for him, but Mikko has enjoyed a superb day. He's in a great position, but four people could still win this rally. If Jari-Matti hadn't lost more time with a spin in the Dome this evening, he could still have featured in the battle," he said.
News from other Ford teams
Stobart M-Sport Ford's Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor are seventh in a Focus RS WRC. Team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin retired from eighth in the opening stage when they spun into a ditch and were unable to regain the road. They will restart tomorrow under SupeRally rules. Munchi's Ford drivers Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc are ninth.
The final leg journeys north-east of Sapporo for two loops of three new stages near the towns of Sunagawa, Bibai and Naie, before returning to the city for two final tests inside Sapporo Dome. Once competitors restart at 06.00 there is no opportunity for service until after the final test. They face 55.68km of competition before the finish ceremony at 14.50.