Mud, mud, glorious mud as Hirvonen climbs to second in Cyprus Ford's Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen overcame treacherous mud to power their Focus RS World Rally Car into second position in the Cyprus Rally today. They beat leader ...
Mud, mud, glorious mud as Hirvonen climbs to second in Cyprus
Ford's Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen overcame treacherous mud to power their Focus RS World Rally Car into second position in the Cyprus Rally today. They beat leader Sebastien Loeb on four of the five speed tests during the second leg of this third round of the FIA World Rally Championship, and arrived in Limassol tonight having reduced the margin between the pair to 49.8sec with one day remaining.
Hirvonen was fastest on the second special stage, a second win for the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team following victory on the opening speed test for Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila. However, Latvala's day was ruined when he lost almost 22 minutes after sliding off the road on the next stage, dropping from fourth to 25th. He recovered to 19th this evening and remains in a points-scoring position for the team.
This is the first mixed surface round of the WRC since 1996 and after yesterday's asphalt action, BP Ford Abu Dhabi's mechanics converted the Focus RS WRCs into gravel specification for the final two days. The drivers tackled five rocky stages in the Troodos Mountains covering 115.60km and after torrential rain last night sections of this morning's loop of three tests resembled a mudbath. A strong wind ensured the roads dried quickly and by the afternoon conditions improved considerably.
The morning stages were so muddy that when Hirvonen returned to service at lunchtime, mechanics removed 95kg of mud clinging to his car!
Hirvonen, third overnight, climbed a place on this morning's second test and built a 10.8sec advantage over third-placed Dani Sordo as the drivers returned to Limassol for service at lunchtime. He stretched that lead to 46.2sec on this afternoon's two stages, while also cutting into Loeb's advantage at the head of the field.
"Conditions changed so frequently this morning that it was hard to find a rhythm," said 28-year-old Hirvonen. "Eighty per cent of the roads were wet and damp, and 30 per cent of that was very wet. Because of the muddy roads my start position gave me no advantage this morning, although they dried so quickly that there was a benefit this afternoon."
"The gap between myself and Loeb is too big for me to think about taking major risks tomorrow. But there are two long stages to drive and so I'll try to find a good pace, monitor the split times and see what happens. Those tests will be tough," added Hirvonen.
Latvala's fastest time on the opening stage reduced the gap between himself and Hirvonen to just 3.4sec but his hopes of a podium ended in the next 28.17km Pano Panagia stage. "About 7.5km after the start of the stage I reached a left-right combination of bends," said Latvala. "I entered the left corner too fast and had to cut the inside of the right bend to compensate. It was only second gear so I didn't have enough speed to climb out of the cut and back onto the road.
"The car became stuck in heavy sand on Miikka's side and there was nobody about to help. I ran back along the stage for 1km to find spectators who ran back with me and we were able to push the car out. It was just a slight mistake in my pace notes, they were too fast for the left corner. It's a big disappointment for me and the team. It's my first time in Cyprus and maybe I should not have tried to fight with the guys ahead.
"Having lost so much time it was tough to keep my concentration level high and I had a spin on the last stage. But I needed to continue driving fast to gain experience of these stages. They were technical but not as rough as I feared, certainly not as rough as the roads in Greece," added Latvala.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr moved up to 10th in their Focus RS WRC, despite handbrake sensor problems. "Some corners are so tight that it's necessary to touch the handbrake to make the car slide round the bend and when I wasn't able to do that I lost time. It was also tough for me to switch my mind from asphalt mode yesterday to gravel today," said Al Qassimi.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said both Hirvonen and Latvala's cars ran perfectly, despite the tough conditions. "Mikko had a great day and reduced the deficit to Loeb and that bodes well for what could be the most difficult day of the rally tomorrow. Jari-Matti made a costly error when he slipped off the road but it was good to see him setting competitive times again immediately afterwards," he said.
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Stobart's Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin climbed from eighth to fifth, posting third fastest time on the penultimate stage. Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc ended the leg in ninth in their Munchi's Ford car. Stobart's Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud started under SupeRally rules after yesterday's retirement and climbed from 29th to 23rd, setting second fastest time on the last stage.
The final leg heads back to the western side of the Troodos Mountains. Although it is the shortest day with only three gravel stages and 82.27km of competition, the opening two tests are 30km and 40km respectively, providing a real sting in the tail. Competitors leave Limassol at 07.45 and return there for the finish at 14.20.