Hirvonen heads BP-Ford's Mexican bid on tricky mountain tests
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen powered up the leaderboard this afternoon to end the opening leg of Rally Mexico in third place. After a difficult morning due to tricky road conditions, the Finns climbed the order rapidly in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to lie among a clutch of tightly-grouped drivers battling for the podium places. Team-mates Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen are fifth in a similar Focus RS.
More than 60,000 people packed the picturesque city of Guanajuato for last night's colourful start ceremony at this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The crowds were so large that organisers arranged three separate start zones to allow the passionate Mexican fans to see the competitors begin the 849.55km event.
This is the first gravel rally of the campaign, the dominant surface in the 16-round series. Hot, dry weather ensured the eight speed tests covering 145.62km were dusty and the lack of rain meant there was plenty of loose gravel covering the central Mexican mountain roads, east of León.
For Grönholm and Hirvonen that was not good news. As the BP-Ford duo are first and second in the championship, they were first to tackle this morning's stages, suffering as they swept away the stones to leave a cleaner and faster line for those behind. The team calculated this disadvantage would cost 30sec during the opening three special stages over 70.60km. As the drivers arrived at the lunchtime service, Grönholm was 26.9sec from the lead in fifth with Hirvonen 27.3sec behind in sixth.
Drivers repeated the same stages this afternoon, before ending with two passes over a 2.21km super special stage. Cleaner roads ensured a more even battle and Hirvonen, who opted for BFGoodrich's hard compound wide tyres to maximise grip and traction, regained huge chunks of time dropped in the morning. He ended the leg 30.1sec behind Sébastien Loeb and just 3.8sec behind Chris Atkinson.
"I knew it was going to be hard this morning because of the conditions," said 26-year-old Hirvonen. "But although we lost time to the drivers behind us, my pace was the same as Marcus so I was pleased with that. I found my rhythm more this afternoon and made a good tyre choice. It's a good fight for second and I have many drivers, including Marcus, close behind me so I need to watch out. It is an enjoyable rally to drive as they are great roads, but there are plenty of rocks.
"I made the set-up stiffer this afternoon which was a good choice, but I may go back to softer settings in the morning. The car needs to be stiffer when there is a clean line because you need to be more precise. Tomorrow's stages aren't so fast but they will be looser so my start position is good," he said.
The rally is the highest in the championship, climbing to more than 2700m, and the thinner air at that altitude means the engines 'run out of breath'. Cars lose up to 30 per cent of their usual power as a result. "The power difference is really noticeable," said Hirvonen. "It's possible to drive flat out even in the technical sections but that means it is hard to make up time on the other drivers."
This afternoon Grönholm chose hard compound tyres that were narrower than Hirvonen's and the 39-year-old Finn admitted he would have preferred wider rubber. He dropped behind his team-mate and Manfred Stohl, before re-passing the Austrian on the penultimate test to end 43.1sec behind Loeb.
"It wasn't such a good day but I don't really know why," said the 39-year-old Finn. "It wasn't great to be first on the road this morning because there was no line to follow and it was hard to find the braking points. But I also lost time this afternoon and I don't know why. Mikko and Seb had a wider tyre but I'm not sure it's just that. I will have to start again tomorrow morning and see what I can do with a better road position."
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said the team diagnosed a temperature sensor fault on Grönholm's car in tonight's final service. "It means Marcus hasn't had full performance from the engine this afternoon," said Wilson. "The positions are very much what I expected. Mikko has had a good day and after running second on the road he has done superbly to be in a podium place while Marcus is only about 15sec away from him."
News from our Rivals
Petter Solberg (Subaru) took full advantage of a good road position to win each of the first three stages on the debut of the new Impreza. He was still leading when an oil leak from the engine forced the Norwegian to retire before the start of stage six. He will not restart tomorrow. That left Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) ahead, the Frenchman driving with a bandaged hand after the steering wheel was knocked out of his hand by a rock. His only problem was on the second stage when a spectator threw a stone at his windscreen. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) is second, despite experimenting with settings on the new car. Dani Sordo (Citroen) is fourth, the Spaniard also driving with a bandaged hand, ahead of Manfred Stohl (Citroen) who won a stage this afternoon. Henning Solberg (Ford) rolled on the first stage and then struggled through the next two tests before service with suspension and gearbox troubles, dropping seven minutes. Thick dust inside the car continued to affect the Norwegian during the afternoon and he ended the day outside the top 15. Luis Perez Companc (Ford) retired just 1.8km into the opening stage after breaking the front right shock absorber. He will restart tomorrow.
The second leg is the longest with 158.38km of competition. Drivers leave León at 07.30 for two loops of three identical stages north and east of the city, before the day ends with two more passes over the super special stage. Competitors return to the city for the final overnight halt at 17.54.