Ford raises a glass to Hirvonen's pace through Mosel vineyards BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen produced an outstanding opening day performance on their least-favoured asphalt surface to hold second in...
Ford raises a glass to Hirvonen's pace through Mosel vineyards
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen produced an outstanding opening day performance on their least-favoured asphalt surface to hold second in Rallye Deutschland tonight. On the debut of the 2008-specification Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, the FIA World Rally Championship leaders lie 19.9sec off the lead after a shortened day's action in tricky vineyard speed tests on the banks of the Mosel river. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are fifth in a similar Focus RS WRC after a solid and mature drive.
This 10th round of the year is the drivers' first taste of asphalt since the season-opener in Monte Carlo in January. Huge crowds flocked into the rally base in Trier, Germany's oldest city, last night for the start ceremony before the competition began in earnest this morning. Forecast rain failed to materialise and drivers enjoyed bright and sunny conditions throughout. However, dust and dirt on the narrow and bumpy vineyard roads made the tests slippery for all.
Drivers were due to tackle two identical loops of three special stages alongside the Mosel, covering 108.16km. However, the penultimate test was cancelled after 12 cars following an accident, before the final stage was scrapped for safety reasons after just three cars completed the test, due to the high volume of spectators lining the route.
Hirvonen, who opted for soft compound Pirelli tyres throughout the day, was engaged in an enthralling battle for second with acknowledged asphalt expert Dani Sordo. The 28-year-old Finn held third initially before closing on Sordo to end the opening loop tied in second. Sordo briefly regained the upper hand this afternoon, but Hirvonen claimed second in his own right on the penultimate stage with a superb time just one-tenth of a second slower than rally leader Sebastien Loeb.
"I've had a good feeling all day, especially this afternoon, and I'm having so much fun," said Hirvonen. "The speed was there this morning but on the second loop things went even better. There's not much more room before I start taking big risks but I will try to keep the pressure on Loeb tomorrow. I've made fast times on this rally before so my pace didn't surprise me, but I tried to focus on my own driving and not think about the pace of others.
"It was slippery in the narrow sections and where the surface changed, especially on the opening stage, and I don't think I've ever been as sideways on asphalt as I was this morning. When it's dry the car feels great and I hope I can take that feeling into the second leg. Tomorrow's stages are fast and the tests on the Baumholder military land will be tricky," he added.
Team-mate Latvala also feels less comfortable on asphalt rallies than loose surface events. He completed the opening loop in seventh, despite feeling the set-up of his Focus RS WRC was too soft to suit his driving style. The team stiffened the suspension by fitting harder springs and the 23-year-old Finn was immediately happier, climbing to fifth this afternoon on a rally where gaining more experience of sealed surface competition is as important to him as the outright result.
"I had a lot more confidence this afternoon with the harder springs," said Latvala. "A top five position was my target tonight. I want to maintain that tomorrow because I know it will be difficult to catch the guys ahead. The Baumholder stages will be tough tomorrow and even though they are difficult they are enjoyable to drive. I hope it stays dry because they aren't quite so nice in the wet."
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr are 18th in the team's third Focus RS WRC. "My pace notes were prepared for a wet rally and it's been dry -- it's important to be cautious when your notes don't reflect the conditions," said Al Qassimi. "In stage four I knocked 20sec off my morning time, almost a second per kilometre. I was all set to try and do the same in stage five but I was stopped on the start line because of Gigi's crash. Stage six was also cancelled so it was a frustrating afternoon."
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson described Hirvonen's performance as 'superb.' "It's the most competitive Mikko has been on asphalt and the new car has run really well. His second place isn't just down to the improvements of the car, Mikko has improved a lot on this surface. I'm pleased with how Jari-Matti has approached this event and built his confidence as the day progressed. It was a strong performance from both drivers," he said.
News from our Rivals
Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) won all the day's stages to build an overnight advantage of 19.9sec over Hirvonen. Dani Sordo (Citroen) is just 5.7sec behind, the Spaniard unhappy with his soft compound tyre choice this morning, with Stobart driver Francois Duval (Ford) in fourth. The Belgian dropped time this morning with minor gearchange difficulties. Behind Latvala, team-mates Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson (both Subaru) traded places on virtually every stage. The day ended with Solberg leading Atkinson by 30.1sec after the Australian overshot a junction on the final test before it was cancelled. Gigi Galli (Ford) retired from eighth on the penultimate stage when his car crashed into trees. He was airlifted to hospital with a fractured left femur and is due to have an operation tonight.
The second leg comprises a mix of countryside tests in Saarland and fearsome roads in the Baumholder military training area. After leaving Trier at 06.15, drivers face two loops of four speed tests covering 159.76km before returning to the city at 19.58. The most challenging section will be two passes through the 30.38km Panzerplatte stage in Baumholder, the longest of the rally.