Cordoba-Villa Carlos Paz
Latvala takes charge of Rally Argentina to lead for Ford
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila led Rally Argentina tonight after a tough opening leg in the mountains near Cordoba. The Finns won four of today's six rocky speed tests in their Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car to build a 18.2sec advantage after the longest and hardest leg of this sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are fourth in another Fiesta RS WRC. They slipped behind the leading trio after dropping time during the final special stage. However, Hirvonen, second in the drivers' standings, lies 46.8sec ahead of championship leader Sébastien Loeb.
After yesterday afternoon's curtain-raising test just outside the event base of Carlos Paz, 700km north-west of Buenos Aires, the narrow, twisty roads in the Traslasierra mountains hosted today's competition. In warm late autumn sunshine, competitors tackled two identical loops of three special stages covering 158.50km.
After the recce I knew the asphalt would make a difference – either in a good or bad way.
Some of the year's classic stages including Giulio Césare and El Condor, were on the agenda. However, El Condor was run in a revised format, with 20km of fast, smooth asphalt at the end of the traditional gravel section to pose extra demands on already well-used tyres and brakes.
Latvala was fourth after last night's stage but was quickly into his stride this morning to post fastest times through the opening two stages. The 26-year-old then lowered his Fiesta RS WRC by 20mm for El Condor. The setting tweak worked perfectly and he was fastest by 9.3sec to stretch his advantage to 12.3sec after the initial loop.
His average speed over the final 6km section of asphalt was a remarkable 196.20kph and Latvala said: "It was so fast it was like racing at Nürburgring again. Lowering the car by 20mm meant it moved around less and gave me more confidence in long corners. I didn't change tyres all morning because I wanted to ensure they were worn to give a better feeling on asphalt. I prepared for this by testing with gravel tyres for half a day on asphalt in Sardinia last month and it gave me confidence."
He was fastest on the afternoon's opening stage, and top three times on the final two tests, despite stalling his engine briefly on the last one, enabled him to pull further clear.
"After the recce I knew the asphalt would make a difference – either in a good or bad way. It was great for me. I lowered the ride height of the car again this afternoon for the mixed stage, but it was harder than this morning because of the ruts in the gravel. Temperatures were high this afternoon and I was worried about tyre wear. I tried not to lock the brakes to look after them.
"I will have pressure from those behind me tomorrow, but I wanted to be first in the start order to avoid the hanging dust early in the morning. Tomorrow's roads are soft and fast in a flat area and I'm looking forward to tackling them from the front," he added.
Hirvonen was fifth after the opening loop, but a 60sec penalty handed to Sébastien Loeb for checking into a time control early promoted Hirvonen to fourth. He remained there during the afternoon, but lost around 15sec on the final El Condor stage as he struggled for traction on worn tyres.
"I didn't enjoy the asphalt and lost too much time there during the day," he said. "It was sixth gear, flat out driving for many kilometres, with massive cuts in the bends. It was hard on the brakes and tyres and I found it difficult to make pace notes during the recce. I lowered the height of the car there this afternoon but the roads were more rutted than I thought and it bottomed out. It was a mistake.
"I was surprised by the tyre wear. They were so used that in the final stage I lost time on the gravel struggling for grip, and also on the asphalt because they moved around too much. It was the asphalt that spoiled my day because I was happy with my performance in the loose. Two long days remain and I believe I can catch Jari-Matti. I have a good start position and will fight like hell," he added.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said Latvala delivered 'a stunning performance' on the mixed surfaces. "Part of our test plan has focused on mixed stages like this and Jari-Matti chose the perfect set-up this morning and was rewarded with a superb time. Mikko had a tough end to the day but he is in a good start position for tomorrow," he said.
News from other Ford teams
M-Sport Stobart Ford duo Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson lie sixth in a Fiesta RS WRC, one place ahead of Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin. Neither suffered any serious problems. Argentines Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc are eighth for the Munchi's Ford team, after the squad replaced the fuel injectors on their Fiesta RS WRC when it lapsed onto three cylinders this morning. Monster World Rally Team's Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino are ninth.
The second leg brings a complete change in scenery and road characteristics. After leaving Carlos Paz at 07.28, drivers tackle one stage nearby, before journeying south to the Calamuchita valley for three fast and smooth tests. The loop is repeated in the afternoon after a mid-leg service back in Carlos Paz. Drivers arrive for the final overnight halt at 19.51 after 159.66km of competition.