Latvala holds third in Finland after measured opening leg
Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila began their defence of the Rally Finland crown by ending today's short opening leg in third in their Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car. The Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team pairing savoured a clean run over tonight's three gravel speed tests, and enjoyed the luxury of being able to measure their pace to take an advantageous position in the start order tomorrow.
Team-mates and 2009 winners Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen ended the leg in a lowly 36th position in their Fiesta RS WRC, after encountering problems through all three special stages near the rally base of Jyväskylä in central Finland.
The eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship began with a brief hors d'oeuvres of two tests north-east of Jyväskylä and a third at the ski jumping arena on the edge of the city, before tomorrow's main course further south. The three stages covered just 39.74km in warm evening sunshine after the thermometer neared 30ºC this afternoon.
Latvala was third through the opening stage. The 26-year-old Finn then tactically eased his speed near the end of the second test, after which tomorrow's running order was calculated, to avoid starting the leg higher up the order on roads covered in slippery loose gravel. He was fourth in the final stage to end the day just 4.4sec from the lead.
"During the second stage the team sent a message into the car giving me a target time to ensure I was third in the start order tomorrow," said Latvala. "I slowed down towards the finish to make sure I achieved that target and the plan worked perfectly. I'm happy with my position for the morning.
"I was cautious on the opening stage and made a couple of small mistakes on the final test but nothing that cost time. All I'm concentrating on is tomorrow as I don't want to put extra pressure on myself, because this rally brings enough of that already. There was great excitement and pressure before the start, but now the event is under way I can relax and focus on my driving."
Hirvonen hit trouble in the second half of the opening stage. "The engine died midway through a fast, fifth gear left corner and without any drive the car slid wide and the rear right hit a tree," said the 30-year-old Finn. "The impact damaged the brakes and suspension. Those issues caused more problems in the next stage and about 5km from the finish, the brake calliper jammed between the wheel and the damper. The wheel dragged all the way to the end, puncturing the tyre."
With more time to carry out running repairs, the crew sealed off the rear right brakes and bled the system. They started the final test without a disc or calliper, as well as only one of the two brackets to hold the damper in position. Hirvonen dropped more time and returned to the overnight halt having lost two minutes in total.
"It's disappointing because it's the second year in a row that I've had problems early in my home rally, although last year was due to a crash," he said. "I wanted to fight for a win and after a strong test last week, I felt that was something I could achieve. All I can do now is drive flat out through the final two days and see how far I can climb back up the order."
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr lie 28th in the team's third Fiesta RS WRC. The duo, who are nominated to score points for Team Abu Dhabi, are 1min 31.7sec from the lead.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on a mixed opening day. "We suffered a setback very early when Mikko had problems, but Jari-Matti is in a perfect position after we implemented a strategy to give him the best chance tomorrow," he said.
"There are two long and tricky days remaining, and for Mikko it's an opportunity to show everyone his speed and see how many positions he can pull back," added Wilson.
News from other Ford teams
The privately-entered Fiesta RS WRC of Jari Ketomaa and Mika Stenberg was fastest through the first stage, before ending the leg in fourth. Stobart M-Sport Ford drivers Mads Østberg and Jonas Andersson lie eighth, with team-mates Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor and Britons Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin 11th and 12th respectively. The fourth team car of Evgeny Novikov and Denis Giraudet is 15th, one position ahead of the FERM Power Tools-entered car of Dennis Kuipers and Frederic Miclotte.
The second leg takes competitors south towards Helsinki, covering stages near Lahti that have not been used in the WRC since the 1980s. After leaving Jyväskylä at 07.30, drivers journey down the west side of Lake Päijänne. After a service zone and a super special stage in Lahti, the route heads back along the eastern shores to return to Jyväskylä at 22.11 after eight stages covering 134.60km.