Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team press release
Ford in charge after gruelling opening day at Rally Australia
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team held first and second places after today's treacherously slippery opening leg of Rally Australia. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen led this 10th round of the FIA World Rally Championship in a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car by 7.0sec from the similar vehicle of fellow Finns Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila.
Slime-covered gravel roads near the east coast rally base of Coffs Harbour, midway between Brisbane and Sydney, made it a day of attrition for the world's top rally drivers. Rain fell intermittently and several said conditions were the worst they had experienced, likening the muddy clay-surfaced roads to ice.
It is the first time the WRC has visited this part of New South Wales and huge crowds turned out last night to watch the start ceremony and two curtain-raising speeds tests in the heart of Coffs Harbour, overlooking the Tasman Sea. The action began in earnest today as competitors journeyed west to tackle two identical loops of three stages, followed by two further passes over the asphalt street tests.
After a dry and dusty practice period earlier in the week, rain transformed the clay roads and few drivers claimed a clean run. There was a huge sense of relief from those who managed to complete the 116.06km of competition.
The worst conditions were found in the opening stage of each loop. Hirvonen, who held fourth overnight, hit a metal post but continued untroubled and climbed to second during the first pass through the tests. The 31-year-old claimed the lead on the afternoon's first stage, despite sliding into a field at a particularly slippery junction, and maintained his advantage over Latvala during the remaining tests.
"Conditions were hell and I'm just happy to be here tonight," he said. "To lead is a bonus. It's too early to think about winning because in these conditions, just finishing will be tricky. It was difficult to pick a line into corners because the grip was so unpredictable. When I touched the brake it felt as if I was driving on ice, and this was one of the most difficult days I have had in my career.
"The opening stage was incredibly fast and equally slippery. There were sections where we clocked 190kph. About 2km after the start I slid wide in a fourth gear corner and hit two metal posts. It knocked my confidence and I was too cautious afterwards. I made my own mistakes today, but others made even bigger errors," he added.
Latvala restarted third, but the 26-year-old Finn lost 20sec in the opening stage after spinning at the same combination of bends in which Hirvonen struck trouble.
Perhaps I didn't respect the conditions as much as I should have done this morning, but I ensured that I did exactly that during the second loop.
"I slid wide on a right bend over a crest. The rear left of the car touched a steel post and the impact threw it into a 180 degree spin into the forest. The car became stuck and I lost 20sec. I was stressed and drove badly for the rest of the stage. The steering pulled left under acceleration and although I was concerned something might break, it didn't disturb me too much," he said.
Latvala bounced back to claim third place during the morning, and then took second as the attrition continued this afternoon.
"It was a hugely demanding day," he admitted. "Perhaps I didn't respect the conditions as much as I should have done this morning, but I ensured that I did exactly that during the second loop," added Latvala, who won four stages allied to Hirvonen's two victories.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr are sixth in the team's other Fiesta RS WRC, a fitting reward for his technicians who replaced his car's boost control system in record time during the mid-leg service.
"I knew the roads would be difficult if it rained and my plan was not to go crazy. If you drove too quickly the car slid off the road, but driving too cautiously made it tricky in corners, so finding the right balance was the key. There was no room for error," said Al Qassimi.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said: "We've not encountered conditions much worse than today, so I'm delighted with our position. The problems encountered by our rivals have provided a boost to Mikko's prospects in the drivers' championship, but our priority remains to finish with a Ford on the top step of the podium."
News from other Ford teams
Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor lead the M-Sport Stobart Ford challenge in fourth in a Fiesta RS WRC, despite a spin this morning, while Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are fifth. However, Evgeny Novikov / Denis Giraudet retired from fourth this afternoon after hitting a rock and breaking a steering arm. Monster World Rally Team's Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino retired on the opening stage this morning after going off the road and damaging their car's rear suspension.
The second leg heads south to the Nambucca and Bellingen shires and is the longest of the weekend. After leaving Coffs Harbour at 07.00, drivers face two identical loops of four stages, split by service back in the town. The day ends with a final two passes through the short seafront test in the heart of Coffs Harbour. Competitors return to the town for the final overnight halt at 19.48.