New Ford Fiesta RS WRC dominates opening day at Rally Sweden
Ford's all-new Fiesta RS World Rally Car made a perfect debut at Rally Sweden today to hold first and second places after the opening leg. Four of the top five positions in this opening round of the FIA World Rally Championship were owned by the car after an unpredictable start to the 2011 season in the blizzard-hit forests of central Sweden.
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are second, just 14.8sec from the lead, with team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila in fourth. The rally was led by M-Sport Stobart Ford pairing Mads Шstberg and Jonas Andersson, who took full advantage of clearer road conditions further down the start order to lead throughout the day. The Fiesta RS WRC won six of the seven speed tests.
Huge excitement built up ahead of last night's start in Karlstad. New cost-effective, more environmentally friendly regulations -- based around 1600cc turbocharged, four-wheel drive cars -- sparked eager anticipation as teams and drivers waited to see how the new-generation cars would perform on their debut.
The action began last night with a short test at Karlstad's trotting track. It continued today with two identical loops of three special stages near Hagfors, including one which crossed the border into Norway -- a total of 129.34km. Temperatures were initially a relatively mild -4C, but they plunged to -14C as the skies cleared late this afternoon.
More than 24 hours of heavy snow made conditions treacherous in the forests, despite tungsten-tipped studded tyres which bite into the icy surface to provide amazing grip. Loose snow was the problem, proving a severe disadvantage to the early starters, who became snow ploughs on the first pass over the roads this morning to leave clearer and faster conditions for those behind.
Hirvonen was quickly into his stride from a favourable sixth in the start order. The 30-year-old Finn settled into second and ended the opening loop 24.8sec behind Шstberg, who enjoyed an even better start position. The snow finally stopped and conditions were more even on the second pass over the same roads this afternoon. Hirvonen maintained a strong pace and sliced 10sec from Шstberg's advantage as the cars returned to Karlstad for the overnight halt.
"My start position helped but conditions were still incredibly difficult this morning," he said. "Everything worked perfectly and the handling was great, but trying to learn a new car in such difficult weather wasn't easy. I had a few close escapes and came close to spinning in slow corners on several occasions. Perhaps I was too cautious in places as a result, but I made no mistakes.
"I'm still learning about the Fiesta. Timing gearchanges correctly is different and that affects my pace notes. The car is short and reacts to bumps quickly, so I have to respond more quickly to counteract that. It's a feature of the car and simply because it has a shorter wheelbase than last year's Focus. I'm second in the order tomorrow so I'll have the problems with which the early starters suffered today. If it doesn't snow again it will be far less of a disadvantage than it was today," added Hirvonen.
Latvala was second in the start order and suffered worse conditions than his team-mate. However, the 25-year-old Finn established himself in fourth, despite a high-speed spin in the morning's final test from which he counted himself lucky to escape.
"I knew it was going to be tough because there was so much loose snow and so little grip," Latvala explained. "It made the roads narrower than on the recce and I touched the snow banks in many corners. About 7km after the start, just after a crest, the car clipped the bank and spun through more than 360є. I kept the revs high and fortunately we didn't get stuck."
Latvala lost almost 30sec but retained fourth, and posted fastest time this afternoon in the test where he had spun earlier. "I hit the snow again on the opening stage this afternoon, but got away with it. It was the third time I was lucky. In these conditions it's vital to be confident and committed, and if you are then there will be occasions when you hit snow banks. I feel 100 percent confident with the car, so I must accept that there are occasions when this will happen," he added.
Team-mates Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr, now nominated by the satellite Team Abu Dhabi, are 10th in another Fiesta, despite losing boost pressure from the turbo this morning.
"It was a dream start for the Fiesta RS WRC," said Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson. "Mikko produced a superb, controlled drive and stayed out of trouble in extremely demanding conditions to put himself in a great position. Jari-Matti also showed great pace considering his road position and he, too, is well-placed despite a spin this morning," he said.
News from other Ford teams
Ostberg was untroubled until the final stage when he damaged his car's spotlights after hitting a hole, impairing his vision in the gathering gloom. M-Sport Stobart Ford colleagues Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor are fifth, despite a spin on last night's opening test, while team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin lie 15th after power steering difficulties. Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino are 18th in their Fiesta RS WRC. PG Andersson and Emil Axelsson led last night in their privately-entered car, but the Swedes lost time today after flipping the car onto its side and later puncturing a tyre. They are 12th.
The second leg is based closer to the Hagfors service park, with all the action taking place on roads east of the town. After leaving Karlstad at 05.35, drivers face two identical loops of four tests before tackling a repeat of the super special stage at the town's Farjestad trotting track. They return for the final overnight halt at 20.40 after 127.50km of competition.