Hirvonen extends Ford's lead in Greece as Latvala climbs to third Finland's Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen increased their lead in the Acropolis Rally of Greece today during a dramatic second leg. On a day of remarkable attrition, the BP...
Hirvonen extends Ford's lead in Greece as Latvala climbs to third
Finland's Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen increased their lead in the Acropolis Rally of Greece today during a dramatic second leg. On a day of remarkable attrition, the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers steered clear of trouble in their Focus RS World Rally Car to extend their advantage to 1min 40.1sec. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila also kept their cool in the Greek heat to charge up the leaderboard from 11th to third in a similar car.
Today's route took competitors across the historic Corinth Canal into the Peleponnese peninsula, south-west of the rally base in Loutraki. Drivers tackled two identical clockwise loops of three speed tests covering 135.36km, split by a lunchtime service in the town. Blistering early morning sunshine gave way to cooler conditions this afternoon as clouds offered respite for the crews and cars alike.
The Peleponnese was a traditional Acropolis venue in the 1980s, but has been unused since and the gravel special stages were narrow, highly technical and strewn with rocks. The arduous roads took a fearsome toll on the frontrunners as three of the top five crews retired this morning, with two more giving second best to the conditions this afternoon. However, the Focus RS WRCs never missed a beat, displaying the combination of strength, reliability and speed that is the key to success here.
Overnight leader Hirvonen was fearful of running first in the start order today, sweeping the slippery loose gravel from the road surface to offer cleaner and faster conditions for his pursuers behind. However, the 28-year-old extended his 3.0sec advantage into a 24.8sec lead during the first loop, protecting his Pirelli Scorpion tyres on the abrasive tracks during the opening two tests to give him the opportunity to win the third. A sensible pace this afternoon allowed him to stretch his lead further, as the conditions proved too much for his rivals.
"It was an incredible, but perfect, day for me," he said. "I made no mistakes and drove fast enough to lead and cautiously enough not to damage the car. My lead is good but I must remember that this is Greece, conditions are rough, and to take it steady tomorrow. I looked after my tyres and didn't hit any rocks. I'm surprised so many people made mistakes but it shows things go wrong under pressure, especially on technical stages like these.
"I never drove at maximum speed, it was a controlled drive and that paid off. Tomorrow's roads are easier than today but there will still be a lot of rocks to avoid. It's good to have such a strong lead because that gives me the time to drive around the rocks, and if I lose a few seconds here and there it doesn't matter," he added.
Latvala, who lost the lead after sliding off the road on yesterday's final stage, stormed back up the leaderboard as others fell by the wayside. He made the most of the cleaner road conditions to win this morning's first test and completed the opening loop in fifth. A measured pace this afternoon, which included winning the first stage for a second time, sealed his recovery into a podium position.
"This rally requires respect and once you start to push then you encounter problems," said Latvala. "I knew something would happen today, but I'm surprised how much happened. The Acropolis showed its true nature, but I survived it. The roads were narrow, with rocks and small walls on the edge, so it was easy to hit a stone by cutting the bends. I kept a steady speed and can't believe I have climbed to third. I was thinking about seventh this morning, and I couldn't have imagined this.
"I want to control my pace again tomorrow. Third is my target, I have no ambition to chase second and risk making a mistake or damaging the car. I'm not going to try to take too big a piece of the cake," he added.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr slipped from an overnight eighth to 11th this morning, but recovered well to move back into a points-scoring seventh place tonight in another Focus RS WRC. "It was tough and the car took a huge battering, but it withstood the punishment superbly. I couldn't push too much on the rocky surface and had to be sensible and avoid mistakes. I lost time on the final stage when I caught Petter Solberg, but it was so dusty that I had to stop four or five times. I couldn't get close enough to pass him and had to drive slowly simply to see the road," said Al Qassimi.
Team director Malcolm Wilson had a double reason to be happy tonight after receiving an OBE today in The Queen's Birthday Honours list. "What a turnaround today has been. Mikko delivered a mature and controlled performance to put himself into a very strong position tonight, while Jari-Matti drove sensibly to capitalise on the mistakes of others. The Focus RS WRC showed great strength and excelled in what were probably the roughest conditions of the season and I'm delighted to have both of them in podium positions tonight," he said.
News from other Ford teams
Munchi's drivers Federico Villagra and Jose Diaz lie sixth in their Focus RS WRC after a troublefree day. Stobart duo Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin restarted 31st after yesterday's early retirement, but a string of good stage times enabled the Britons to climb to 18th tonight. Team-mates Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud retired their Focus RS WRC from fifth after hitting a large rock and breaking the car's front right suspension.
The final leg is the shortest of the rally with just 95.26km of competition, but included in that are two passes over the daunting 33.00km Aghii Theodori test, the longest of the rally. After leaving Loutraki at 09.00, drivers face an opening loop of three stages before service, and a final loop comprising two of the same tests. The finish is back in the town at 14.36.