Double podium in Sardinia keeps Ford ahead in world title race BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team finished second and third in an enthralling Rally d'Italia Sardegna today to retain the lead in both the manufacturers' and drivers' standings in...
Double podium in Sardinia keeps Ford ahead in world title race
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team finished second and third in an enthralling Rally d'Italia Sardegna today to retain the lead in both the manufacturers' and drivers' standings in the FIA World Rally Championship. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen claimed second in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, with Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila third in a similar car. Ford preserves its seven- point advantage in the manufacturers' series while Hirvonen is three points ahead in the drivers' table.
This sixth round of the 15-rally series was the first European gravel fixture of the season. Based in the north-east of Sardinia, the three-day event was characterised by tough narrow tracks south of Olbia. Competitors tackled 17 speed tests covering 344.73km, and despite heavy rain before the start, the rally itself was dry, although cloudy skies ensured temperatures were cooler than expected.
Hirvonen and Latvala began today's final leg in equal second place, tied to the tenth of a second. Both endured a disappointing opening day when Hirvonen struggled for speed after being first in the start order on roads covered by slippery loose gravel, and Latvala dropped more than 90sec with a puncture. However, the Finns fought back yesterday to take first and second on every stage to reel in leader Sebastien Loeb and start today just 29.4sec behind.
Both drivers ate into the Frenchman's lead during the opening three special stages, Hirvonen leading the charge. But when they realised the time gap was too big, they eased their pace, content to settle for podium positions. Twenty-seven-year-old Hirvonen won two tests today and eventually finished just 10.6sec behind Loeb and 4.7sec ahead of his 23-year-old team-mate.
"The first stage this morning was great but I went off the road briefly on the next about 1km after the start," said Hirvonen. "I hit a rock and didn't know what damage I had done so I knew I had to ease off slightly. I thought I had a puncture but Pirelli's tyres are strong and the rubber stayed inflated. At one point I was worried I wouldn't make the finish. This afternoon I started to go flat out to try to take time from Loeb, but I realised it wasn't going to happen so I decided not to take any more risks and dropped my pace. Jari-Matti's split times were good so I couldn't ease off too much.
"I needed more speed on Friday but apart from that, this was a good rally. If I continue to lead the championship and be first in the start order, then I need to find more speed on the first day when conditions are slippery. If I can't win, then I need to take second and that's what I did here," he added.
Latvala won 10 of the 17 tests and was delighted with a podium after sliding to 14th following Friday's error when his car hit a bank and punctured. "It was a shame as after that I did so well. On Friday I would have been happy to finish in the top five, so third is fantastic and gives me a big confidence boost. If I hadn't made the mistake, who knows what the outcome might have been," he said.
"This morning I had a big fight with Mikko and I should have driven better. I had a good road position for two days and today I didn't. I didn't have the same confidence because the roads were slippery and there wasn't the same flow. I saw that I couldn't catch Mikko so I started to ease off. I was tracking his split times during the stage and followed his pace but I didn't want to take stupid risks to try to pass him. Mikko won the fight on the morning stages and second belonged to him," added Latvala.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and co-driver Michael Orr were 16th in another Focus RS, finishing under SupeRally rules after crashing yesterday. "I didn't drive well this morning, the stages were narrow and I wasn't confident. Things were much better in the afternoon when I built up confidence. Driving in this rally for the first time with new pace notes was a learning curve," said Al Qassimi.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with the weekend. "We decided that it wasn't realistic to catch Loeb and our drivers were happy to settle for their positions. Yesterday was very special, and I'm not sure anyone has taken that kind of time out of Loeb in a single day when he was fighting for victory and that bodes well for the future. Road position was more crucial here than we thought, and that was a surprise, but our cars ran reliably all rally," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport director Mark Deans said: "Despite a truly committed charge to secure the win, the significance of maximising our points in the manufacturers' championship wasn't missed by the drivers and as a result we've maintained our seven point lead in the standings. That's a reassuring position in which to be as we head into the tough rallies in Greece and Turkey."
News from our Rivals
Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) claimed a record 40th world rally win with his fourth success of the season. Stobart's Gigi Galli (Ford) took fourth with Dani Sordo (Citroen) and Chris Atkinson(Subaru) rounding off the top six. Ninth for Per-Gunnar Andersson gave Suzuki the final manufacturers' point. Today's only major retirement was Toni Gardemeister (Suzuki), who stopped after an electrical fire.
The championship remains in the Mediterranean when round seven takes the team to Greece later this month. The all-gravel Acropolis Rally of Greece is based in Athens on 29 May - 1 June.