Nancy Knapp Schilke, WRC correspondent
Jari-Matti Latvala ended the first day of Rally de Portugal on top of the leaderboard, and his closest challenger was his own Ford factory teammate, Petter Solberg. The pair opened the fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship by taking the two fastest times in the qualifying stage on the streets of Lisbon. Yesterday, Sebastien Loeb crashed out of the rally and now both top Ford drivers might retire from the event.
This morning, the competitors woke up after a night of rain had left conditions that were treacherous with patches of fog. It did not take long for many of the drivers to find themselves slipping and sliding or nearly getting stuck. For the Ford team, Latvala and Solberg ended today’s action early when they both ended up in a ditch.
It was so muddy, so slippery, just unbelievable.
Latvala with his co-driver Miikka Anttila sailed off the road near the end of the fifth special stage this morning. The Finn was just 1.4 kilometres from the finish of the Tavira stage when he hit a rock that caused his Fiesta RS to leave the road. They ended in a ditch and per a Ford spokesperson: “…. his car is stuck at an angle of 45 degrees. From the angle the car is at it’s not possible to assess if there’s damage to the suspension. The police are not letting spectators try to help get the car on the road for safety reasons so they are stuck.”
After Solberg inherited the lead and prior to his own woes, he said, “It was so muddy, so slippery, just unbelievable. After that I backed off because it was too risky from championship point of view.”
On the very next stage, it was the Norwegian and his navigator Chris Patterson who went sailing off into a ditch, taking away any chance of victory for the Ford factory team. They are also in the same situation as their teammates in an area that is not safe for spectators to assist.
Citroen’s remaining driver Mikko Hirvonen holds the lead at this time, and he said, “I’m sure these are the most difficult conditions I’ve been driving. In some places I can’t see 10 metres but you’re supposed to be going flat out. I don’t like these conditions.”
UPDATE: Both Ford drivers will be able to restart tomorrow utilizing the Rally 2 rule. They received a time penalty due to the special stages they missed. Latvala was handed a 15 minute penalty while Solberg received 10 minutes added to his overall time.