Hirvonen carries podium battle into final day in Germany
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen ended today's second leg of Rallye Deutschland in fourth place. The Finns are 33.1sec from the podium in their Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car after a demanding day's action in south-west Germany. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila retired from 10th this evening after puncturing a tyre and crashing.
The second day of this ninth round of the FIA World Rally Championship always looked like being the toughest - and so it proved. The narrow, flowing public roads of Saarland demanded caution, while the speed tests at Baumholder's military land offered a challenge unlike anything else experienced during the season.
The bumpy abrasive tracks, a mix of asphalt and broken concrete, are more frequently used for tank training exercises and were tough on tyres. The roads are lined by hinkelsteins, giant kerbstones which are designed to keep the tanks on the roads, and they provided an ever-present reminder to drivers that a slight error in their chosen line could prove extremely damaging.
Drivers faced more than 14 hours on the road, tackling eight special stages covering 150.14km before returning to the rally base in Trier, Germany's oldest city, for the final overnight halt.
Hirvonen, third after the opening day, extended his advantage over fourth-placed Dani Sordo during the opening three stages. However, the 31-year-old Finn dropped behind his Spanish rival after puncturing a tyre and losing a minute on the final test of the morning at Baumholder.
"I have no idea how the puncture happened," said Hirvonen. "There were some holes in the asphalt and sharp edges on the roadside so maybe I caught one of those. I felt the vibrations about 13km from the finish and with about 9km to go the tyre deflated completely. I made the dampers stiffer during the loop and although the car didn't feel as good, the times were better."
Hirvonen fought tooth and nail when the stages were repeated this afternoon. Although he narrowed the deficit initially, the gap widened on the second pass over the military roads. The duelling duo ended the day with the margin just two-tenths of a second away from where it was at the lunch break.
"The first three afternoon stages were good, but the final one wasn't," he said. "There were many junctions and I drove too hard. I wasn't patient enough. I also made a couple of small mistakes, but nothing that cost serious time. I stiffened the suspension again at the mid-leg service and had a good feeling this afternoon. Tomorrow's stages suit me, and I'll try really hard to regain third."
Latvala restarted in 15th after yesterday's time-consuming problems. But the 26-year-old Finn felt unwell after spending much of last night awake with a stomach upset. However, he put his ailments to one side to win the opening test en route to climbing to 10th after the opening loop.
"I felt better as the morning went on," he said. "I was so bad in the night that our medics came to see me in my room four times, but my stomach started to settle when I climbed into the car at the restart. I felt really weak, but fastest time cheered me up!"
He continued to set a strong pace during the afternoon until his day ended in retirement in the penultimate test.
"At the end of a sixth gear straight, I braked for a fourth gear left-right series of bends," explained Latvala. "There was a big cut on the inside and at the end of the cut was a tree stump, which I hadn't noticed. I went deeper into the cut than in the first pass and clipped the stump. I felt the impact and should have slowed immediately because when I braked at the end of the next 100 metre straight, I realised the front right tyre was flat.
"We were passengers but I managed to throw the car sideways before we went off the road and hit a tree on Miikka's side. It wasn't a massive impact but the car was about three metres from the edge of the road and down a small bank. It was disappointing because I was trying some different brake pads and discs, and I was pleased with how the day had gone. It seems that when something goes wrong for me in this rally, it goes wrong in a big way," he added.
It is hoped Latvala will restart tomorrow under SupeRally rules.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said: "We had another great start this morning with fastest time in the opening stage from Jari-Matti. Mikko held his position until he lost more than a minute with a puncture, and now he faces a tough battle tomorrow to regain a podium place."
News from other Ford teams
M-Sport Stobart Ford crew Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor are eighth in a Fiesta RS WRC, while team-mates Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are 12th. Wilson clipped a tree in the opening stage and hurt his chest after a heavy landing over a jump. Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson are 22nd, despite two punctures in the final two stages, the second of which he stopped and changed. The team's fourth Fiesta RS WRC, driven by Aaron Burkart / André Kachel, lies 35th after losing time this morning with a driveshaft problem. Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte climbed to seventh for the FERM Power Tools World Rally Team before losing three minutes when they stopped to change a puncture in the final stage, sliding to 11th. Monster World Rally Team's Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino are 18th, despite sliding off the road into a corn field this morning.
The final leg returns to the vineyards bordering the Mosel river which hosted much of yesterday's action. After leaving Trier at 07.00, drivers tackle two identical loops of two stages among the grapes. The rally closes with a spectacular street test around Trier's imposing Porta Nigra gate, with bonus points on offer for the fastest three drivers. The finish is beneath the Roman gate after a further 76.31km of competition.