Ford Fiesta's winning start in Germany turns to frustration
Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen ended the opening leg of Rallye Deutschland in third place after a frustrating day for the Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila made a perfect start to the first asphalt event for the new-generation WRC cars by winning the opening speed test, but both pairings encountered problems as the day progressed.
The vagaries of the weather in south-west Germany hampered both Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car crews this morning. A mistake this afternoon cost Hirvonen more time, while an electronics problem and two punctures dropped Latvala to 15th with two days remaining in this ninth round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Thousands of fans packed Trier, Germany's oldest city, to witness last night's start ceremony beneath the imposing Porta Nigra Roman gate. The action began this morning when 80 starters journeyed north-east to tackle two identical loops of three asphalt special stages covering 133.14km on the banks of the Mosel river.
Dry conditions encouraged Hirvonen and Latvala to opt for hard compound Michelin Pilot Sport tyres for the opening loop. They proved ideal for the first test and Latvala sped to victory by 1.5sec.
However, heavy rain in the next stage made conditions extremely tricky on the narrow vineyard tracks. The hard tyres were unsuited to the wet roads and Ford's Finnish duo each dropped more than 30sec to their soft-shod rivals ahead. Hirvonen recovered to claim second in the morning's final test and reached the mid-leg service in third, 35.2sec from the lead.
"I was happy with the car and had good speed in the dry. Our tyres were perfect for the first and last stages, but the soft compound would have been better in the middle test. The last 5km were soaked and I was worried about aquaplaning off the road. The weather is so localised here that it can rain on one side of a hill and be dry on the other," he said.
Latvala dropped from fourth to seventh after puncturing a right rear tyre on a short gravel section 6km after the start of the final test. He drove to the finish and lost 80sec. "There was a 100 metre gravel section in which I braked hard, and I think a sharp rock pierced the tyre. It was a slow puncture and I made the correct decision not to stop and change it, but by the end of the stage there was no rubber remaining," said the 26-year-old.
Hirvonen bent the rear suspension geometry after hitting a wall in the opening afternoon stage, dropping more than 20sec. The 31-year-old made emergency repairs on the following liaison section and completed the final two stages at close to maximum pace.
"It was a silly mistake," he admitted. "I went wide at the first junction in the stage and the impact damaged the suspension links. I adjusted the toe settings which made the suspension straighter and easier to drive. It was difficult to show how competitive the Fiesta RS WRC can be because I've not had a clean day. But there's no doubt we're closer to our rivals on asphalt than we were last year and tomorrow, I hope I can show that."
Latvala's engine dropped onto three cylinders in the opening afternoon stage due to electronics issues. The crew's attempts to restore the car to full health before the final two tests were unsuccessful, and Latvala dropped more than four minutes during the loop. A right rear puncture in the final stage simply added to Latvala's frustration after such a bright opening.
"I was so happy to win the first proper asphalt stage with the Fiesta RS WRC," he said. "But then it rained so quickly. I was worried I would slip off the road because there was no heat in the hard tyres. We expected heavy clouds but believed that if it rained, it would only be light. Soft tyres would have been a huge gamble, but that gamble would have worked.
My rally is over in terms of a good result. What I want to do now is try to set good times and prove that myself and the car can be competitive on this surface.
"This afternoon was incredibly frustrating. The problem started just 3km into the opening stage of the loop and I had to live with it from then on. My rally is over in terms of a good result. What I want to do now is try to set good times and prove that myself and the car can be competitive on this surface," added Latvala.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said changing the fuel injectors, ignition coils and spark plugs in this evening's service restored Latvala's car to full health. "Jari-Matti made a fantastic start to the rally and it was great to see a Finn and a Ford leading an asphalt WRC event. Unfortunately it was short-lived with the problems we had. Mikko managed to maintain his podium position and I'm looking forward to a more successful day tomorrow," he said.
News from other Ford teams
M-Sport Stobart Ford crew Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor are seventh in a Fiesta RS WRC, the Norwegian's only problem being his aggressive braking style on asphalt. Team-mates Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are 12th, Wilson admitting he struggled for rhythm throughout the day. Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson are 27th after losing eight minutes this morning when they hit a wall and damaged the brakes and suspension. The team fourth car, driven by Aaron Burkart / André Kachel, retired from 11th with brake problems in the final stage. Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte are ninth for the FERM Power Tools World Rally Team after a clean run. Monster World Rally Team's Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino endured a frustrating day to finish 17th. They punctured a tyre on the opening stage, went off the road on the next and struggled through the third with damage to the rear of their Fiesta RS WRC. They then clipped some small trees on the final stage.
The second leg is the longest of the rally and features two distinct styles of stages. The flowing and often wooded public roads that wind through the Saarland countryside contrast starkly with the bumpy, abrasive tank training tracks found at Baumholder's military land. After leaving Trier at 07.00, drivers face two identical loops of four speed tests covering 150.14km before returning to the city for the final overnight halt at 21.17.