Hirvonen extends Ford's lead in Sweden with tyre master stroke
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen extended their lead in Rally Sweden today after a blistering afternoon performance in the frozen Scandinavian forests. The Finns managed their tyre strategy to perfection on their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to build a 16.6sec lead with just one day remaining of this first round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila also enjoyed a good afternoon, climbing to third in a similar Focus RS World Rally Car. They will start tomorrow's final leg with a 54.8sec advantage over fourth-placed Dani Sordo.
Today's action comprised two identical loops of four speed tests covering 117.76km, clustered around Hagfors, 90km north of the rally base in Karlstad. Temperatures plunged to a bone-numbing -22C under clear skies this morning, but as the sun rose another stunning Scandinavian winter's day unfolded in the Varmland region of central Sweden. The fast and furious action attracted Swedish royalty and HRH Prince Carl Philip visited the team's service park in Hagfors to meet the drivers.
The thrilling battle for supremacy at the head of the leaderboard continued unabated this morning as 29-year-old Hirvonen fought to extend his lead. Such was the intensity of the duel that after the opening loop of 58.88km of flat-out driving in the ice-bound forests, rival Sebastien Loeb cut Hirvonen's 6.2sec overnight advantage by the slender margin of 2.0sec. Hirvonen was fastest on the opening Vargåsen special stage, but the pace of the two protagonists left the battle delicately poised.
The same roads were repeated this afternoon and as the snowy surface deteriorated to expose the gravel beneath, tyre management played a crucial part. Hirvonen fitted new Pirelli Sottozero rubber to the front of his Focus RS World Rally Car before the Sågen test, the second of the loop. He blitzed Loeb by eight seconds and gained a further eight on the following Fredriksberg stage to widen his advantage to 23.0sec. Hirvonen's big attack on the gravel meant his tyres had lost many of the tungsten-tipped studs that bite into the ice ahead of the final test, but at only 1.87km he limited the time loss to 6.4sec to end the day with a significant lead.
"I had a great feeling on the two big stages this afternoon when I took time from Loeb," said Hirvonen. "I had a tyre strategy and it worked but it required great commitment. There was a lot of gravel on the roads and conditions were tricky for the tyres because stud retention was so difficult. My lead is far from comfortable and Loeb will push me very hard tomorrow.
"It's great fun to be involved in such a big fight for the lead. I didn't think first in the start order today would create any problems and it didn't. My only mistake came when I stalled at the start of the final stage this morning but it only cost a couple of seconds," he added.
Latvala endured a puzzling morning but retained fourth. However, he made some minor changes to the set-up on his Focus RS World Rally Car and maintained the pressure on Sordo. It paid off when Sordo firstly spun and then stopped for almost a minute when his car's engine temperature soared, allowing 24-year-old Latvala into a podium position. He set two fastest times during the afternoon.
"The morning wasn't as good as I hoped. It felt like everything was going well but the times weren't as good as the feeling. I tried driving aggressively and I tried driving cautiously, but it didn't come together," said Latvala, who was hampered on the opening test by a misted windscreen caused by a ventilator jamming open in the roof of the car.
"I found my confidence this afternoon and was happier with my performance. I made the front dampers on the car harder and lifted the rear, which helped avoid understeer. It made a big difference and for the first time this weekend I felt like a rally driver and not a taxi driver! The gravel meant it was easy to destroy the tyres and I had to do a lot of thinking about how to look after them," he added.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr climbed from 17th to 14th in the team's other Focus RS WRC, the Emirati driver still building confidence in conditions that are alien to him. "I'm enjoying it a little more but conditions were extremely difficult this afternoon," said Al Qassimi.
News from other Ford teams
Stobart M-Sport Ford's Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor retained sixth in their Focus RS WRC while team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin climbed to seventh. Wilson made improvements to the set-up of his Focus RS WRC at the lunchtime service and moved ahead of Mads Ostberg. Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen endured another difficult day in the team's third car. A puncture and then an overshoot into a snow bank cost more than eight minutes, but fastest time on his favourite Sågen test brought a smile to the Finn's face. He lies 29th. The new Ford Fiesta S2000 took advantage of improving conditions to set remarkable first and second fastest times on the final Hagfors Sprint stage in the hands of S-WRC drivers Martin Prokop and Bernardo Sousa.
The final leg is the shortest of the rally, but still contains 101.05km of action. After leaving Karlstad at 05.35, drivers again head north to Hagfors before tackling five stages east of the town. Two of the tests will be used twice, either side of a 30 minute service in Hagfors. Drivers then journey back to Karlstad for the finish ceremony at 15.30.