Pacy Hirvonen powers Focus into second in Mexican mountains BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen ended today's tough opening leg of Rally Mexico in second place. The Finns were a model of consistency in their Ford...
Pacy Hirvonen powers Focus into second in Mexican mountains
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen ended today's tough opening leg of Rally Mexico in second place. The Finns were a model of consistency in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. They were second fastest on all six gravel speed tests high in the mountains above the city of Leon to end the day just 4.8 seconds from the lead of this third round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Team-mates and championship leaders Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen were third after this morning's loop of special stages. However, they crashed on this afternoon's opening test and retired. The car was not badly damaged and they will restart tomorrow under SupeRally rules.
Almost 60,000 fans, more than double the amount seen in 2005, packed the narrow cobbled streets of Guanajuato last night to watch the spectacular start ceremony. The event began in earnest this morning as drivers tackled two identical loops of three gravel speed tests to the north and east of Leon. The action ended in darkness with the first of three runs over an extremely dusty super special stage on the edge of the city, providing a total of 150.20km of competition.
The mountain tracks never dipped below 2100 metres and peaked at 2737 metres, the high point of the 2006 championship. The thinner air at that altitude affected both brakes and engines, teams estimating a drop in power of almost 30 per cent. Blistering heat made it hard work for drivers as air temperatures climbed to 31C.
This is the first of 11 gravel rallies in the 16-round season and is therefore regarded as the best guideline so far for the year ahead. Hirvonen displayed the Focus RS car's abilities on loose surfaces by speeding to second fastest time on the opening three stages.
"My start position gave me an advantage over Marcus this morning because the roads were cleaner," said Hirvonen. "The altitude sapped engine power and that made it tricky in corners because there wasn't the same power available as normal to pull the car through the bends. I was surprised how rough it was and I hit a lot of stones. The brakes worked well but they were on the limit in this heat. The thinner air meant they didn't cool in the same way as they would elsewhere."
The team raised the car's ride height and stiffened the suspension for the afternoon tests. Despite an oil leak in the front right shock absorber, the 25-year-old Finn reduced leader Petter Solberg's advantage to 3.6sec before the Norwegian stretched the margin to 4.8sec at the super special.
"Today has been good for my confidence," he said. "The Focus RS is easy to drive and I loved it out there. I have so much confidence in it and it's encouraging to set times similar to Loeb and Solberg. I didn't know the damper was leaking, but I knew I had a problem in stage five. The wheel rim was broken so I must have hit a stone but I've been hitting them all day! I slowed for the final 10km but as I didn't know what was wrong, I pushed hard again on the next stage," he added.
Gronholm was handicapped this morning by starting the stages first, encountering plenty of slippery loose gravel on the road surface which his Focus RS swept clear to leave a cleaner and faster run for those behind. "The car felt great but it was a shame that I was first on the road," he said. "It wasn't so bad but there wasn't a clean line and that makes all the difference. It meant there was more wheelspin and I had to brake earlier. I couldn't have done any more this morning."
The 38-year-old Finn was determined to attack on the cleaner afternoon roads but was caught out at a tricky left-right sequence of bends 9km into stage four. "I entered the left corner too fast and then slid into a ditch on the right bend. The car ended on its side and we pushed it back onto four wheels but couldn't regain the road. It was my mistake. I was attacking too hard and tried to brake late," he said. The Focus RS suffered rear-left suspension damage but the team replaced the unit. Time penalties for not completing the leg dropped Gronholm to 23rd but he remains confident. "I think I can still score manufacturer points here," he added.
Matthew Wilson and Michael Orr lie sixth in a 2005-specification Focus RS for the privately-entered Stobart VK M-Sport team. Team-mates Luis Perez Companc and Jose Maria Volta retired after crashing and tearing off a front wheel and breaking a driveshaft. Irish duo Gareth MacHale and Paul Nagle are equal seventh in another privately-entered Focus RS.
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The first day's gravel competition of the 2006 season took a heavy toll on the leading drivers. First to go was Xavi Pons (Citroen) who retired with engine problems 12km after the start of the second stage. After Gronholm's accident, Chris Atkinson (Subaru) rolled out of fourth place after hitting a rock in stage five. Petter Solberg (Subaru) was fastest on the opening four stages to build a 11.5sec lead before tyre troubles late this afternoon reduced his advantage. Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) ended the morning in fourth but two fastest stage times this afternoon promoted the Frenchman to third, just 9.5sec behind Solberg. Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) lies fourth despite struggling for grip this morning, ahead of Dani Sordo (Citroen). Morning brake problems cost Henning Solberg (Peugeot) a minute and he dropped over three minutes on stage five when he stopped to change a puncture.
The second leg follows a similar format with two identical loops of three stages north and east of Leon, followed by a second run over the superspecial stage. The opening section of the first test on each loop covers roads used in the opposite direction today. After leaving Leon at 09.00, drivers tackle 148.92km, before returning for the final overnight halt at 21.04.