Hirvonen remains optimistic as Portugal poses tough challenge
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team's Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen ended today's second leg of Rally de Portugal in fifth position after another tough day's competition. The Finns have not ruled themselves out of a podium finish in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car with a final demanding day's action in the Algarve hills remaining. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila retired this morning after crashing into a tree, the damage preventing them from continuing.
The second day of this sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship returned to the Serra do Caldeirão hills, north of the holiday resort of Faro. Drivers tackled two identical loops of three sun-kissed gravel speed tests covering 135.10km. High temperatures and hard, rock-based roads again made tyre wear a key consideration, and drivers had to temper their natural attacking instincts to ensure the rubber provided sufficient grip at the end of each loop.
Hirvonen restarted in fourth but lost a position on the second special stage this morning to complete the opening loop in fifth, 10.6sec behind his closest rival. Tyre preservation was on the 29-year-old Finn's mind throughout the afternoon as temperatures rose and the surface bedrock became more exposed. However, he did a good job of managing tyre wear and was able to attack hard through the final stage, setting third fastest time. He lies just 8.2sec behind fourth-placed Dani Sordo and 21.7sec from Petter Solberg in third.
"I felt I drove really well, but I didn't make the progress I hoped this morning," admitted Hirvonen. "The second stage was confusing. My performance wasn't consistent and the car slid around in the second part of the stage on the wider and faster sections. Perhaps taking two spare tyres was too cautious. It added an extra 25kg to the weight of the car and when the car slid sideways, it slipped more because of the extra weight in the rear.
"I tried hard to save my tyres on the first two stages this afternoon and that decision paid me back on the final test because I was able to attack. I have plenty to fight for tomorrow. A podium is possible, but there are quite a few of us who want that. There are only two stages in each loop and the early start means temperatures will be cooler, so we won't have to worry as much about managing our tyres," he added.
Latvala and Anttila were second fastest through the opening stage in their Focus RS WRC to retain their overnight sixth position. However, the Finns' day ended just 400 metres into the next test.
"The third bend on the stage was flat out and led into a right corner," explained 25-year-old Latvala. "I was a little late turning into the second corner and hit a bank. The car started to spin and hit a tree about 40 metres from the road. The rear of the car took the impact and was too badly damaged to continue. I knew as soon as I hit the tree that the day was over.
"It has been a difficult rally for me. After a bad opening stage yesterday, I found a good rhythm and I was quite happy. This morning my target was to climb the leaderboard and I made a good start on the opening stage. But now I've lost manufacturers' points for the team and I'm disappointed," he added. It is hoped he can restart under SupeRally rules tomorrow.
Team-mates Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr are tied in 10th place in the team's other Focus RS WRC. "We were better than yesterday, but I had some problems with the brakes. I enjoyed this afternoon and am positive about tomorrow's stages. We will make some small changes and start to push a bit harder," said Al Qassimi.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said: "A podium is still possible for Mikko and, from a championship perspective, we really need that. Jari-Matti was doing a good job but he made a mistake and he needs to learn from that. I hope he will be back out tomorrow gaining some more valuable experience."
News from other Ford teams
Stobart M-Sport Ford hold sixth and seventh with the Focus RS WRCs of Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor and team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin. Solberg had fuel pump troubles this morning while Wilson overcame brake difficulties on the opening loop. Munchi's Ford drivers Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc are tied in 10th with Al Qassimi. Monster World Rally Team duo Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino were unable to restart this morning due to accident damage after yesterday's roll. In the S-WRC support class, the Ford Fiesta S2000 continues to hold first and second. Jari Ketomaa and Mika Stenberg lead championship leaders Xevi Pons and Alex Haro by more than three minutes.
The final leg is the shortest of the rally and is again based in the Serra do Caldeirão hills. After restarting at 05.50, drivers face two identical loops of two speed tests, split by a return to the Algarve Stadium service park. After a short final service, drivers tackle a repeat of Thursday evening's super special stage inside the stadium. The day's competitive distance totals 89.61km and the finish ceremony takes place in the stadium immediately after the final stage.