Rally d'Italia Sardegna
Hirvonen takes second in Italy as Ford delivers powerful finish
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished second in Rally Italia Sardegna today to maintain their strong challenge in the FIA World Rally Championship. Their Fiesta RS World Rally Car finished just 11.2sec from the lead, despite dropping more than 50sec during Friday's opening leg when Hirvonen hit a bank and punctured a tyre.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished 18th in a Fiesta RS WRC. The Finns fell out of contention on Friday's opening speed test when they went off the road after a pace note error and retired. However, they returned under SupeRally rules and displayed blistering speed yesterday to climb back from 54th with five special stage wins out of six.
Hirvonen and Latvala claimed maximum bonus points in the rally's final live television Power Stage today. Hirvonen was fastest from Latvala, to claim three and two points respectively. The Ford Abu Dhabi pairings won 11 of the rally's 18 stages, as Latvala claimed seven victories and Hirvonen four.
I was happy with my speed throughout the weekend and I feel increasingly confident with the Fiesta RS WRC with every event.
Hirvonen remains second in the drivers' standings, just seven points from the lead, after five of 13 rounds. Latvala lies fourth and Ford Abu Dhabi is second in the manufacturers' table.
The rocky gravel roads on the sun-kissed Mediterranean island made this a rally of attrition. More than half the 63 starters retired during the opening leg, based near the west coast town of Oristano. The retirement rate eased during the final two days, near the rally base in Olbia in the north-east of the island, as drivers tackled a total of 18 stages covering 339.70km.
Hirvonen was challenging for the lead on Friday until he hit an earth bank and punctured the rear right tyre. He ended the leg in third and closed in on the lead again yesterday as he climbed to second. However, the gap was too big to chase victory over today's final four stages covering 65.58km, and the 30-year-old Finn concentrated on successfully fending off two challengers for second place and targeting the bonus points available on the last stage.
He was helped when organisers handed him a 4.5sec boost after correcting a wrong time from yesterday's second stage.
"Second was a strong finish and I'm delighted with the bonus points," Hirvonen said. "I had a good rhythm throughout the stage. I lost 50 seconds after a mistake in the opening leg and if it hadn't been for that, I think I could have won this rally. I was happy with my speed throughout the weekend and I feel increasingly confident with the Fiesta RS WRC with every event."
Latvala was ruled out of contention for a good result after his first stage accident when Anttila misread a pace note – a mistake Latvala was quick to forgive. However, the 26-year-old Finn showed just what could have been when he was fastest overall in both the second and third legs.
"When my chances of a good overall result were gone, I decided to focus on taking bonus points from the Power Stage," he said. "At the service before the stage I decided to take only one spare wheel, and I removed the tools that we normally carry in the car to save weight. We saved about 40kg. After setting a fast time it was exciting watching to see if anyone could beat me. If anyone had to beat me, then I'm glad it was Mikko.
"Conditions were slippery this morning and although I won the opening two stages, I was too close to the mountainside in places, so I decided to calm down! The car was very fast and reliable all weekend and I'm already looking forward to the next round in Argentina," he added.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 12th in the team's other Fiesta RS WRC, scoring solid manufacturers' points for Team Abu Dhabi. "It was an incredibly tough rally. It's so easy to clip a rock and damage the car. Sometimes I was too fast and sometimes too cautious and it was a difficult job trying to find the right balance with the car," said Al Qassimi.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with the pace shown by both drivers. "We won 11 of the 18 stages and I believe we were the fastest car / driver package," he said. "The Power Stage result was some consolation for not winning the rally outright. It was frustrating that Mikko and Jari-Matti lost time on the first day. I'm sad that Miikka made a mistake, but the whole team is behind him and they regained their confidence with so many fastest times yesterday."
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "The pace of the Fiesta RS WRC was clear for all to see and but for two unfortunate incidents, both Mikko and Jari-Matti would have challenged for victory. Positions in both the manufacturers' and drivers' championship remain close and I'm confident the exciting competition we have viewed this year will continue throughout the season."
News from other Ford teams
M-Sport Stobart Ford drivers Mads Østberg and Jonas Andersson drove consistently to finish fifth, with team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin in ninth. Evgeny Novikov and Stéphane Prévot recovered from a first day roll to finish 13th, two places ahead of the similar Fiesta RS WRC of P-G Andersson and Emil Axelsson. Munchi's Ford duo Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc completed the Fiesta RS WRC finishers in 17th. FERM Power Tools duo Dennis Kuipers and Frederic Miclotte retired from 15th after this morning's second stage with gearbox troubles.
Ott Tanak and Kuldar Sikk won the SWRC support series in a Ford Fiesta S2000 to take a two point lead in the series after three rounds. Egon Kaur and Erik Lepikson scored their second straight victory in the FIA WRC Academy, the sport's new training programme for young drivers, supported by Ford. Kaur now leads the series for identical Fiesta R2 rally cars, by 32 points.
Ford Abu Dhabi journeys to south America later this month for round six of the championship. Rally Argentina (26 - 29 May) returns to the series after a year's absence and the predominantly gravel event is based in Villa Carlos Paz, near Cordoba.