Rally de Portugal
Ford retains WRC lead as Latvala scores podium in Portugal
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team retained the lead of both the manufacturers' and drivers' standings in the FIA World Rally Championship in Portugal today. Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila's third place in Rally de Portugal and fourth for team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, both in Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Cars, preserved the team's clear lead in the manufacturers' table.
Hirvonen maintained his lead in the drivers' points after this third round of the 13-rally series. Latvala remains third in the standings after his third consecutive podium finish. He boosted his score by claiming bonus points for finishing second in this afternoon's Power Stage, the final speed test of the rally which was broadcast live on global television.
After visiting the capital city of Lisbon on Thursday for the opening special stage, competitors tackled three days of rocky and abrasive gravel roads in the hills above the Algarve coastline in the south. The 17 tests covered 385.37km, with sunshine on Friday giving way to overcast skies yesterday and spells of heavy rain today.
Latvala and Hirvonen ended the opening leg in first and second respectively, 25-year-old Latvala claiming a clean sweep of stage wins on Friday afternoon. A broken front right driveshaft and a puncture yesterday forced Latvala down to thirdm while team-mate Hirvonen slipped to fifth after a puncture and broken rear suspension.
Hirvonen climbed to fourth on this morning's opening stage, the first of four tests covering 104.86km, but slid back to fifth after a driveshaft broke on the next test. He regained fourth on the penultimate stage and, with no realistic chance of climbing further, both drivers focused their efforts on the opportunity to take bonus points in the Power Stage.
The 31.04km test was the longest and most difficult of the rally. Hirvonen's hopes of bonus points were dashed when a rear left shock absorber broke near the end. But Latvala was quick throughout and second fastest time earned the Finn two extra points.
"On the first pass through the stage this morning I improved my pace notes for the Power Stage, especially in the narrow and slippery corners that were made more tricky by the rain," said Latvala. "It was a tough stage and I paid close attention to my notes to ensure they were as good as they could be. I attacked really hard. I drove over a big rock and was sure the impact would puncture the tyre, but the rubber was strong and I escaped. I'm really happy with the extra points.
"It's my third podium in three rallies so far this year and I'm pleased with that consistency. After my problems yesterday, a podium is a fantastic result. I feel confident with the car and I know that we can continue to work with its development to improve it even further," he added.
Hirvonen, too, was satisfied with fourth after his earlier troubles. "This was the best result I could hope for after losing time yesterday and this morning. I wanted to take extra points in the Power Stage but it wasn't to be. I'm leaving Portugal still in the lead of the championship. It's close and exciting, and I'm sure it will remain that way for the rest of the season.
"I'm pleased with the performance of the Fiesta. It's only the third rally for the car and this is the roughest it has tackled. The speed is good and we need to continue working hard in our tests to improve the reliability," added the 30-year-old Finn.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 14th in the squad's third Fiesta RS WRC, scoring points for Team Abu Dhabi. They returned to action today after crashing out yesterday, and Orr completed the final day with two broken ribs from the impact.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on a solid weekend. "It was a tough and demanding rally. The pace and performance of the car and drivers was excellent but we suffered technical issues which cost the chance to challenge for a win. However, we know we can address these before the next round. It was encouraging to see the positive attitude and feedback from our drivers in what was the first traditional gravel rally for the Fiesta RS WRC," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "Coming to Portugal was a step into the unknown. It was the first regular gravel rally of the kind that forms the bulk of the championship and, as such, a clear indicator for the season ahead. It was a tough event, but the times confirmed the Fiesta RS WRC is fully competitive. We have work to do before the next event, but we are encouraged."
News from other Ford teams
M-Sport Stobart Ford World Rally Team's Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin were fifth, but team-mates Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor slipped from sixth to ninth with power steering and turbo problems. The team's third car of Mads Østberg and Jonas Andersson was 31st. Munchi's Ford's Federico Villagra and Jose Diaz retained eighth and FERM Power Tools' Dennis Kuipers and Frederic Miclotte were 10th.
Eighteen identical Ford Fiesta R2 cars started the inaugural round of the FIA WRC Academy Cup. Irishman Craig Breen and Britain's Alastair Fisher both led before crashing out, leaving Estonia's Egon Kaur to take victory.
Round four takes Ford Abu Dhabi to Rally Jordan (14 - 16 April). The all-gravel event is located on the shores of the Dead Sea, with most of the stages taking place below sea level.