Ford tightens its grip on leading places in dramatic day in Italy BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team strengthened its one-two position at the head of the leaderboard in Rally d'Italia Sardegna today. Overnight leaders Jari-Matti Latvala and ...
Ford tightens its grip on leading places in dramatic day in Italy
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team strengthened its one-two position at the head of the leaderboard in Rally d'Italia Sardegna today. Overnight leaders Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila retained top spot in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car despite enduring the worst of the dusty and slippery road conditions. The Finns are 9.9sec ahead of team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and the Ford pair extended the advantage over their nearest challenger to more than a minute.
The second leg of this sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship was one of attrition. While the Focus RS WRCs ran free of problems, five leading drivers were sidelined as the rocky gravel roads and temperatures, which topped 30C, took a heavy toll on the entry list.
After an early morning start from the rally base in Olbia, competitors tackled two identical loops of speed tests south-west of the town covering 130.74km. The loops were split by a return to the service park in Olbia at lunchtime.
Latvala faced the unenviable task of leading the 53 starters through the special stages, sweeping the roads clear of loose gravel to leave a cleaner and faster line for those behind. However, the 24-year-old delivered a superb performance over the three morning tests as he preserved much of his lead, his 39.8sec advantage only reduced to 27.0sec. A trio of third fastest times this afternoon enabled him to stay ahead of a charging Hirvonen.
"Today was almost perfect, apart from a small spin at a junction in an asphalt section of the penultimate stage," said Latvala. "I drove as well as I could in those conditions and expected to lose more time. It was hard to judge the braking points this morning because as first car into the stages, there were no marks to help me. Running first was good for my experience and I needed to learn how to drive in those conditions.
"The gap to Mikko is very small and it will be hard for me to hold him off tomorrow as I will again open the stages. I would have liked a lead of about 25sec tonight, or to be behind Mikko and force him to do the cleaning role that I had to do today. But if I can drive like I have today then a win isn't out of the question," he added.
Hirvonen, second overnight, was equally impressive behind the wheel of his Focus RS WRC in both fighting off closest challenger Sebastien Loeb and closing in on Latvala. He was fastest on the opening test of each loop and widened the gap to Loeb before the Frenchman lost a minute with a puncture on the penultimate stage. He then sliced almost 10sec off Latvala's lead in the final test to close on his fellow countryman.
"I'm going for the win tomorrow," said 28-year-old Hirvonen, who has shaken off the effects of the fever which hampered him yesterday. "The situation looks good now. I took time from Jari-Matti today and he must clean the roads again tomorrow. It has been a great rally so far, but tomorrow won't be straight forward and it's easy to make a simple, but costly, mistake here.
"My day was very constant and my only problems came in stage eight this morning when I twice had to slow to allow wild horses to cross the road. On the first occasion there were about seven or eight and then I came upon two more, about 8km further on. It was like the Wild West!" he said.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr enjoyed a good day to climb from 10th to seventh in their Focus RS. They enjoyed a close fight with Conrad Rautenbach this morning, swapping positions on every stage, before overcoming a lack of power steering this afternoon to move up the order. "The problem started on the liaison section after lunchtime service. I contemplated retiring, but persevered and it was worth it -- although my arms feel very tired now," said Al Qassimi.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson praised the efforts of both Latvala and Hirvonen. "It has been the best performance of the year so far. Both have driven fantastically well, especially given the disadvantage of their start position, and stayed out of trouble on the rough stages. It will be hard for Jari-Matti to stay ahead of Mikko as he must sweep the roads again, but the most important thing is to retain first and second," he said.
News from other Ford teams
Stobart drivers Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin had a troublefree day to climb from ninth to sixth in their Focus RS WRC. Team-mates Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud climbed to fifth on the opening stage, but a right rear puncture in the morning's final stage cost more than a minute and three positions. The Norwegians were sidelined this afternoon with broken front right suspension in the penultimate test and will restart tomorrow in 10th. Munchi's drivers Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc restarted under SupeRally rules after retiring yesterday but retired again at the lunchtime service when Companc felt ill. They will not restart tomorrow.
The final day is the shortest of the event. After leaving Olbia at 06.00, drivers face two loops of stages, split by a return to the town for service. Two stages south of the town feature in both laps, with a single run in the second loop through a test to the north, near the Costa Smeralda coastline. The finish is in Porto Cervo at 14.15.