Hirvonen takes world title bid into season's final day in Britain
Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen's bid for a maiden FIA World Rally Championship title will go down to the final day of the 2009 season in Wales tomorrow. The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers will start the final leg of Rally of Great Britain in second place in a Focus RS World Rally Car, after surviving treacherous conditions during the second day of this 12th and final round.
The margin between the Finns and leader Sebastien Loeb in their showdown for the drivers' world crown is 30.2sec. Hirvonen currently heads the championship by a single point, and whichever driver finishes highest on the leaderboard when the rally finishes in Cardiff tomorrow afternoon will claim the title.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila recovered from yesterday's troubles to climb back into a points-scoring position in their Focus RS WRC. Having restarted in ninth, the Finns quickly moved up to eighth and maintained their place with a string of consistent times.
Heavy rain overnight and early this morning ensured appalling conditions in the south Wales forests. The gravel tracks were coated with mud and standing water, while gale force winds and patchy fog increased the challenge for drivers and the hardy fans alike. Competitors tackled two loops of three speed tests in the Vale of Neath forests and the exposed Brecon Beacon moorland, covering 138.16km, before returning to Cardiff this evening for the final overnight halt.
Hirvonen was wide awake in the gloom of the opening 35.72km Rhondda special stage this morning to post fastest time and close the gap on Loeb to 2.9sec. However, the 29-year-old Finn dropped more than 10sec in each of the next two tests to reach the midday service 25.0sec behind. He was fastest through the afternoon pass of Rhondda, before ceding more valuable seconds in the final two stages.
"I made a great start this morning but something wasn't right on the next two stages," said Hirvonen. "I couldn't make good times and I really don't understand what went wrong. The afternoon was similar. Although my pace was better, I again lost time on the final two stages, but not as much as this morning. I'm disappointed but I have to put it to the back of my mind and focus on tomorrow. The gap is larger than I would like, but I'll try my hardest and see what I can do. I hope 80km is long enough in which to fight back.
"Tomorrow is my last chance this year and I would like some luck. If I could ask for anything it would be rain, fog and difficult road conditions. They would give me the best chance of taking time back. The roads are different from today and I think they will be muddier, so that will help," he added.
Latvala put yesterday's time loss behind him to climb to eighth on the opening stage and, with a large time gap ahead, the 24-year-old Finn concentrated on maintaining a consistent pace and fine-tuning his pace notes. He hardened the car's set-up and raised the ride height at the midday service and the changes improved his feeling with the Focus RS WRC during the afternoon stages.
"It was a tricky day," he said. "The grip was OK this morning because the rain washed the mud from the surface, but there was a lot of standing water in the ruts. That was difficult, especially in the braking areas. This afternoon my road position didn't help. The solid surface was covered with mud and it was really slippery. I wasn't happy with my driving, perhaps I have been thinking about things too much instead of getting in the car and just driving. Tonight I will forget about the rally and read my book to clear my mind. Tomorrow I hope I can set top three times," said Latvala.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr restarted under SupeRally rules in 54th in the team's other Focus RS WRC after yesterday's retirement. They climbed to 28th in conditions far removed from those experienced in Al Qassimi's home country. "Conditions were difficult and there was a lot of fog and heavy rain. We had our wipers on full and it was hard to see," he said.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson confirmed that Hirvonen had experienced no mechanical problems today. "We analysed all the data when Mikko returned to service at lunchtime and found no mechanical issues. Therefore we simply carried out a routine service, in which we changed all four 'corners' of the car. Mikko remains in the fight after a difficult day. He is further behind the lead than we would like but tomorrow's leg contains 80km with no opportunity for service and there is still everything to fight for," he said.
News from other Ford teams
Stobart VK M-Sport drivers Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud maintained their grip on sixth in a Focus RS WRC. The windscreen wipers on the Norwegians' car struggled to cope with the rain this morning and cost time, although yesterday's engine misfire troubles were resolved. Team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin are still seventh and happier with their performance after yesterday's traction problems. Steve Perez and Paul Spooner are 14th in the team's other Focus RS WRC.
The final day of the 2009 season is the shortest of the weekend but provides a sting in the tail. After leaving Cardiff at 07.10, drivers tackle two identical loops of two stages north-west of the city. There is no opportunity for service once they have left Cardiff, so competitors must tackle 79.84km of stages before the finish in the city at 14.35.