Hirvonen prepared for final day podium tussle in Acropolis Rally
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen ended today's second leg of the Acropolis Rally in fourth position. The Finns, driving a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car, face a final day battle for a podium position in this seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship, with the leading quartet covered by just 22.4sec.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are 11th after losing more time in their Fiesta RS WRC with a turbo problem this morning. However, the Finnish pairing still have their sights set on a points finish when the gruelling three-day rally ends in Loutraki, 90km west of Athens, tomorrow.
Following the pre-event recce drivers regarded the second leg as the roughest of the rally. After leaving Loutraki, competitors crossed the Corinth Canal for two identical clockwise loops of three rocky gravel speed tests in the Peloponnese peninsula. The day ended with a stage in darkness, after which drivers returned to the town following 141.89km of action.
Hirvonen more than halved the overnight gap between himself and leader Petter Solberg as the battle for supremacy continued unabated this morning. The Finn reached the mid-leg service in fourth, having slashed the margin from 55.3sec to just 23.8sec.
"The roads were rough but the car didn't receive any major hits," said 30-year-old Hirvonen. "The Fiesta is incredibly strong and coped well. I lost a few seconds in places. I could see in the split times that I dropped time in the uphill sections and regained it in the downhill parts. I needed more traction because the wheels were spinning too much."
He maintained a consistent pace when the stages were repeated this afternoon, over roads made even rougher by the morning pass and in temperatures that touched 35ºC. After setting second fastest time through the night stage, Hirvonen overnighted just 1.5sec behind Solberg, the Norwegian now occupying the final podium place.
"Fourth means I have a good road position for tomorrow and I will push like hell," said Hirvonen. "My car was perfect all day but I struggled sometimes for pace. Everything must be perfect tomorrow for me to climb the order. There was a lot of hanging dust in the final stage and it was hard to see through it in the dark, but it wasn't as tricky as it could have been."
Latvala restarted in eighth with his Fiesta RS WRC restored to health after last night's transmission troubles. The team replaced the entire transmission system – gearbox, clutch, front and centre differentials and driveshafts.
The 26-year-old Finn climbed to seventh in the opening stage after setting fourth fastest time, despite reporting a loss of power in the final kilometre. The crew traced the problem to the car's turbo and although they tried to make repairs on the following liaison section, they could not solve the issue. They drove the next two tests with no turbo power, losing 10 minutes and dropping to 15th.
With a new turbo installed, Latvala attacked the afternoon at full pace. He won both the opening stage and the night test to climb from 15th to 11th at the end of the day.
"I visited the Acropolis Museum in Athens before the start on Thursday, but still the rally Gods don't like me," said Latvala. "Top speed on the flat was about 120kph but only 60kph in the uphill sections. My rally went wrong yesterday but I still want to move up the leaderboard because points are possible. I didn't have any speed, but the problem wasn't damaging the car so it was fine to continue. It's frustrating for both me and the team.
"If the roads were good and I had a good rhythm then I drove well, but it was difficult to maintain motivation in the rough sections and I eased off. It's a tight battle at the front and I wish I was involved in it. The drivers' title is out of reach for me now, so I will concentrate on helping the team in the manufacturers' championship and assisting Mikko with his title challenge," added Latvala.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said Hirvonen was in a strong position to challenge tomorrow. "Mikko looked after his car perfectly, although I would have liked to have seen a little more pace from him. Flat out tomorrow is our only plan. It's disappointing that Jari-Matti had turbo failure but he went out and showed good pace, especially considering his understandable lack of motivation," he said.
News from other Ford teams
M-Sport Stobart Ford's Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor remain fifth, despite a broken brake pipe this morning, one position ahead of team-mates Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin, who were unsettled by an engine misfire. FERM Power Tools drivers Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte climbed to ninth, while the third M-Sport Stobart car of Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson recovered to 14th after a strong recovery following yesterday's retirement. Rene Kuipers / Annemieke Hulzebos are 17th and Lambros Athanassoulas / Nikolaos Zakheos posted two top six stage times en route to 22nd. Munchi's Ford duo Federico Villagra / José Diaz retired on the liaison section after the final stage following daylong engine difficulties. Evgeny Novikov / Denis Giraudet showed good pace before retiring ahead of the penultimate stage with a broken alternator belt.
The final day is based in the hills just to the east of Loutraki. After restarting at 08.30, drivers tackle two identical loops of two stages. The final Power Stage, in which bonus points will be available to the fastest three drivers, is then held over a short section of road used earlier in the day. Competitors return to the finish at 15.30 after 65.38km of competition.