Hirvonen still second in Finland as duel reaches new intensity BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen maintained second place during today's second leg of Rally Finland after a titanic battle for the lead...
Hirvonen still second in Finland as duel reaches new intensity
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen maintained second place during today's second leg of Rally Finland after a titanic battle for the lead over the fastest and most challenging roads in the FIA World Rally Championship. The Flying Finns traded seconds with arch-rival Sebastien Loeb on every speed test to end the day 18.2sec off the lead in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car.
The gripping duel drew tens of thousands of fans into the forests of central Finland for what is one of the most eagerly-anticipated days of the season. Such was the pace of the leading two drivers on what is affectionately known as the 'Finnish Grand Prix', that their closest rival is more than three minutes behind with just tomorrow's short day remaining in this ninth event of the 15-round series.
Today's 10 special stages covered 168.25km, almost half the rally's total distance. Based close to the town of Jamsa, south-west of the rally base in Jyvaskyla, the action included some of the rally's legendary fast, wide roads and roller-coaster jumps, matched with new narrower sections. Cool temperatures but bright sunshine for much of the day dried the roads made wet by yesterday's showers.
Twenty-eight-year-old Hirvonen fought tooth and nail with Loeb as the two front-runners in the battle for the drivers' world title swapped seconds on every stage. The pattern became familiar. One driver would gain a few seconds, only for the tables to be turned on the following stage as the other driver hit back. Having started the day 14.4sec apart, Hirvonen reduced the gap to a fraction over 11sec with three stage wins, before the Frenchman extended his advantage on the final two tests.
"What an amazing day! It's been so enjoyable and the speeds were absolutely crazy. I was flat out everywhere, taking huge risks, and the pace today has been higher than last year. On one stage I set the record last year. This morning I was 10sec faster than that and then another seven seconds quicker on the second pass -- and I still wasn't fastest. I followed Loeb's lines and I could see that he, too, was right on the edge. It's a fantastic fight and very intense," said Hirvonen.
"For every second I won, he took it back from me on the next stage. A lot can happen on tomorrow's fast stages but it will be hard to take that amount of time back on driving alone. Either I need some good luck or he needs some bad luck. A Frenchman on top of the podium in Finland wouldn't be good so I have to try to prevent that," he added.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila continued to rebuild their confidence and improve their experience of the roads following their accident yesterday. They restarted in 86th position under SupeRally rules after incurring a 45-minute following their retirement. The Finns lost time early in the opening stage after sliding into a ditch but quickly found their rhythm and won three stages this afternoon.
"It was difficult this morning and I didn't feel comfortable after yesterday's accident," said 23-year-old Latvala. "I went wide and got stuck on the first stage but it was better after that and my confidence is returning. I drove fast, but on the safe side of fast, and I'm starting to enjoy the driving again. If I was in a position to fight then I could do that now, whereas this morning nothing felt right."
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr climbed from 15th to 11th in their Focus RS, delighting the fans with a spectacular jump measured at 55m. "I'm happy with the consistency of my driving," said Al Qassimi. "I'm not thinking about the position as much as the learning experience. There were a lot of surprises, and I slid off on some corners. We had a moment in stage 15 where I went into a bush, so I got back on the track and gave it everything, and was going flat out in fifth gear when I hit a jump. The car was really high off the ground, so much so that I couldn't see the crowd below. I thought there would be a big impact when I landed, but it was fine."
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on an enthralling day. "Jari-Matti took the chance to regain his confidence by winning stages which is good for the next round. Mikko drove at 100 per cent all day but unfortunately was unable to pull time back from Loeb. But it's not all over yet and it's going to be an exciting day tomorrow," he said.
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Behind the leading two drivers, Stobart driver Gigi Galli (Ford) moved into third on the opening stage but rolled into retirement four stages later. Dani Sordo (Citroen) took over there but came under increasing pressure from Chris Atkinson (Subaru) this afternoon. After starting the day in seventh, the Australian overhauled Sordo on the final stage by just 1.0sec. Henning Solberg holds fifth ahead of brother Petter (Subaru), who overcame a clutch problem early this morning. Toni Gardemeister (Suzuki) had hydraulic problems this morning, causing the loss of power steering, which brought further pain to the Finn who is struggling with a shoulder injury. He is eighth. Team-mate Per-Gunnar Andersson (Suzuki) retired from ninth when he went off the road close to where Galli rolled. Munchi's driver Federico Villagra (Ford) rolled out on the penultimate test. Team-mate Luis Perez Companc retired following the final stage after a heavy collision with a rock which required co-driver Jose-Maria Volta to be airlifted to hospital for precautionary checks after experiencing pain in his ribs.
The final leg is a short, sharp affair. After leaving Jyvaskyla at 08.20, drivers face just three stages east of the city covering 40.47km before the finish ceremony at 13.30. The opening stage at Lankamaa is the longest of the rally at 23.09km.