Double win helps Latvala make promising start in France BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila won two speed tests en route to fourth place after today's opening leg of the new-look Rallye de France. ...
Double win helps Latvala make promising start in France
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila won two speed tests en route to fourth place after today's opening leg of the new-look Rallye de France. The Finns topped the time charts twice this afternoon in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car over treacherously slippery roads through the Vosges mountains, in the Alsace region of north-east France. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lie sixth in a similar Focus RS WRC.
The Mediterranean island of Corsica hosted France's fixture in the FIA World Rally Championship since the series began in 1973. However, this year's rally switched to Strasbourg, nestled alongside the River Rhine on the border with Germany, for the 11th round of the 13-event championship.
The city hosted last night's start ceremony before the 67 starters journeyed south towards Colmar for today's opening action, comprising two identical loops of four special stages covering 145.96km through vineyards, forests and mountains. The route included the climb to Le Grand Ballon ski station, the highest point of the rally at 1424m.
The asphalt roads proved every bit as demanding as drivers had forecast. Overnight rain left the surface damp, especially under the trees, and as the early cars dragged mud and stones onto the roads, conditions became increasingly difficult during the morning. The road surfaces were even dirtier this afternoon when the stages were repeated, and the challenge was made even harder as competitors had to use Pirelli's PZero asphalt tyres on roads that resembled a gravel rally in many places.
Latvala, who opted for soft compound rubber all day, ended the opening loop in fifth place, 28.3sec from the lead. The 25-year-old Finn was fastest on the first and last tests this afternoon, winning the final stage by more than four seconds to climb into fourth, 41.8sec from the lead.
"This morning was OK, but I struggled to find my rhythm on the first two stages," he said. "This afternoon I had a better rhythm. When the roads were slippery and covered in gravel, I felt confident. The car worked well in those conditions and that's where I had the advantage. Normally those are the conditions in which I struggle, but I wasn't afraid of them today. The final few kilometres of the last stage were incredibly greasy and muddy and it felt like a Monte Carlo Rally stage on ice.
"My good result on the last asphalt round in Germany lifted the pressure from me. To win two stages in France against the French drivers was quite special," added Latvala.
Hirvonen also opted for soft rubber throughout the day. He was sixth on all four stages to arrive at the service zone in Mulhouse 37.7sec behind his fellow countrymen after the opening loop. The 30-year-old Finn retained the position during the afternoon, despite damaging the front and rear left wheel rims during the final stage.
"I was lucky," he admitted. "I came into a right bend which was muddy and I hit a rock. The road became narrow and slippery immediately afterwards and on the next corner I almost went off the road. I lost my confidence and wasn't sure if I had broken anything, so I decided to take it more steadily for the rest of the stage."
"I was sixth in the start order and the roads were incredibly dirty. The cars ahead dragged mud and stones onto the asphalt and I wasn't prepared to take any risks. I didn't have confidence in the damp high-speed sections, especially this morning, so I played it safe and didn't attack," added Hirvonen.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr are 11th in the team's third car. "I was cautious and only pushed when I felt confident because the roads were so greasy," he said.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with Latvala's stage victories. "To win two stages against the French on home ground was a fantastic performance from Jari-Matti. Today was our most competitive on asphalt for some time and I'm confident we can maintain that form tomorrow," he said.
News from other Ford teams
Munchi's Ford drivers Federico Villagra and Diego Curletto are eighth in their Focus RS WRC in their first asphalt outing for a year. Stobart Ford duo Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin struggled to adapt to the constant grip changes and the slippery surface in their Focus RS WRC. They are ninth tonight, one place ahead of team-mates Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino. Block had brake difficulties this morning and reverted to the manual gearchange system this afternoon after problems changing gear.
The second leg is based south-west of Strasbourg, close to the town of Obernai. In contrast to today, much of the competition is based on extremely narrow roads, across flat and open plains. Drivers leave Strasbourg at 07.30 and tackle two identical loops of four stages before returning to the city for the final overnight halt at 19.09.