Hirvonen opens WRC season in style to lead in Sweden for Ford
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen made the perfect start to the 2010 FIA World Rally Championship to lead the first round in Sweden after today's opening leg. The Finns, runners-up in the 2009 series, top the leaderboard in Rally Sweden by 6.2 sec in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila lie fourth in a similar car after the season began with a gruelling 15 hours behind the wheel.
After a solid opening this morning, Hirvonen tweaked his car's set-up, stepped up the pace and took an advantage that he extended as the day went on, returning to the rally base in Karlstad having won three of the leg's eight speed tests covering 126.34km.
After a spectacular opening last night at Karlstad's trotting track, this first round of the FIA World Rally Championship journeyed deep into central Sweden today to tackle ice-bound forests roads in the Varmland region. Conditions were initially perfect for classic winter rallying. In temperatures dipping below -20C, the frozen gravel tracks provided a solid base for Pirelli's studded Sottozero tyres to bite into through the snow cover above and provide amazing grip. However, during the repeat afternoon pass deep ruts and gravel poking through the ice made stud retention a key factor in drivers' pace.
Hirvonen was third after three special stages before the 29-year-old modified the settings on his car's centre differential and shock absorber to try to find a better feeling. The transformation was instant and Hirvonen won the morning's final stage to climb to second, just 4.1sec from the lead. He powered into the lead with victory on the next test and added a third success as the sun started to fall.
"I wasn't happy with my driving or the car's set-up on the first two stages," said the 29-year-old Finn. "Before the final test I changed the centre differential and damper settings back to my 2009 set-up and it was a big improvement, I found a good rhythm. I tested new differential settings last week but the car just wasn't consistent in corners this morning and it felt more progressive after the change.
"This afternoon the conditions were strange. In places the roads were bumpy with deep ruts that acted like railway lines. In other places there was deep ice but no clear driving line and the penultimate stage was gravel with no ruts at all. It was generally very rough and the person who was brave enough to just go for it was the one who was fastest. I was on the limit many times. I'm not afraid of being first through the stages tomorrow and I will attack because my lead isn't big enough," he added.
Latvala was a model of consistency this morning, the 24-year-old claiming fourth on each stage to return to service 18.0sec from the lead. Like his team-mate, he altered the settings on his car's shock absorbers and immediately powered his Focus RS WRC to fastest time through the second pass of the Viggen test. The effort left the studded tyres in less than pristine condition, but they held up well through the remaining kilometres and Latvala completed the day 31.7sec behind his fellow Finns and team-mates.
"I had a difficult morning because I was lacking confidence and braking too early, but things became so much better this afternoon after my set-up changes," said 24-year-old Latvala. "The differential programme worked well on the pre-rally test but it wasn't right for these conditions. There was more gravel then than we experienced this morning so I made some alterations to the differential mapping. I altered the damper settings this afternoon as well and all the changes had the desired effect and my pace improved.
"It wasn't until then that I found my rhythm and it's a shame that didn't happen in the morning. But now I'm looking forward to tomorrow. I touched a few snow banks this morning and overshot a junction on the opening stage this afternoon. The engine stalled and I had to reverse back onto the road, but it was a very tricky section and many drivers made the same mistake there," he added.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr are 17th in the team's other car after a difficult day on what is only Al Qassimi's second snow event. They dropped two minutes on the opening stage when their car became wedged in a snow bank and they had to wait for spectators to push them out. Two overshoots this afternoon cost less time, but they again needed spectator help to regain the road.
News from other Ford teams
Stobart M-Sport Ford drivers Henning Solberg and new co-driver Ilka Minor are sixth in a Focus RS WRC with team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin seventh. Solberg slid off the road briefly on the final stage and incurred a 30sec penalty when the team changed his car's gearbox tonight. Wilson reported a bizarre incident when he caught and passed a struggling Petter Solberg, only to stall the engine in a corner before Solberg ploughed into the back of his car! Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen lie 30th after losing 12 minutes this afternoon with an electrical problem. The Ford Fiesta S2000 of Janne and Markku Tuohino is 10th on the car's WRC debut.
The second leg is based much closer to the Hagfors service park than today's action. Drivers leave Karlstad at 06.00 to tackle two identical loops of four special stages, including a short test on the edge of Hagfors itself. The loops are split by a 30 minute service in Hagfors and competitors return to Karlstad for the final overnight halt after a further 117.76km of action.