Hirvonen leads Rally Sweden for Ford in new Fiesta RS WRC
The all-new Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car of Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen led Rally Sweden tonight after a pulsating second leg. The Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally team pair held a 7.4sec advantage, with team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila in fourth, but just 10.9sec behind their colleagues, in a similar car.
Tomorrow's third and final leg will provide a thrilling showdown for victory in this opening round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Five drivers are covered by just 15.8sec, three of them at the wheel of a Fiesta RS WRC, which is making its debut in the harsh winter environment of central Sweden.
After the blizzards of the previous two days, there was no overnight snow and conditions were ideal. It was bitterly cold as temperatures plunged to -24C this morning, but it left the forest roads near Hagfors bone hard, with a thin layer of loose snow on the surface to hinder the early starters. Bright sunshine and clear skies offered picture postcard scenery for the thousands of fans who flocked into the countryside to watch the action.
Drivers tackled two identical loops of four speed tests before a repeat of the short special stage at Karlstad's Farjestad trotting track, where the new season was launched on Thursday evening. That totalled 127.50km of competition and drivers faced more than 15 hours behind the wheel.
Hirvonen started 14.8sec behind the similar car of Norwegian Mads Шstberg, but he turned that deficit into a 0.3sec advantage in the morning loop. "Conditions were fantastic," he said. "I didn't know how much loose snow there would be on the road. There was some and I lost a little time by ploughing the snow, but there was nothing like as much as yesterday. The sun was still low on the second stage and it wasn't easy driving into sixth gear corners when I couldn't see where the road went."
The 30-year-old Finn built his lead to 12.6sec before a spin on the afternoon's second stage slashed his advantage to just six-tenths of a second. However, Hirvonen recovered and stretched the margin again as the drivers returned to Karlstad for the final overnight halt.
"I spun near the end of the stage when I entered a corner too fast and the back of the car hit a snow bank. It stopped facing the wrong direction and I had to flick the car round before restarting. It was a good day and I couldn't have driven faster. First in the start order tomorrow will slow me, but until I see how much snow is on the roads, I don't know how big a disadvantage it will be," added Hirvonen.
Latvala was a model of consistency this morning, posting third fastest time on all four stages, although the 25-year-old was critical of his driving. "I had a great feeling with the car and I enjoyed myself," he said. "But I started to push too hard and became too aggressive. I found it difficult to calm down and settle into the smooth rhythm that I enjoyed during my test before the rally. It wasn't the car that was the problem, it was the driver!"
He found that rhythm this afternoon and his pace promoted him to third, slashing the gap to the lead from 44.3sec to just 7.8sec. Near the finish of the penultimate stage, after which Sunday's start order was calculated, Latvala took a tactical decision to slow down. The 10sec lost dropped him to fourth, but a lower position offers the prospect of faster roads, with the snow swept away by those ahead.
"I didn't know what the best option was," he explained. "If there is plenty of loose snow on the roads then I'm in the best position, but I won't know until tomorrow morning. It was a great afternoon. This morning I used too much of the road and slid wide too often. But the tracks were heavily rutted on the second pass and I had to keep the car within the confines of the ruts, which was perfect for me."
Latvala also escaped what he described as 'the fastest spin of my life'. "It happened 2km before the finish of the opening stage this afternoon. The car spun backwards in a left bend and I just hung on and hoped for the best. I was incredibly lucky," he admitted.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr lie 11th in the squad's other Fiesta RS WRC. Al Qassimi, nominated by the satellite Team Abu Dhabi, was untroubled but found it difficult to maintain his speed in the icy ruts this afternoon.
News from other Ford teams
M-Sport Stobart Ford pair Mads Ostberg and Jonas Andersson lie second behind Hirvonen, their only concern being the disadvantage of starting the stages first and ploughing the snow. Team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin are 10th in their Fiesta RS WRC, but Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor rolled into retirement on the opening stage. They will be unable to restart tomorrow. P-G Andersson and Emil Axelsson won a stage this morning but struggled with power steering troubles all afternoon. Despite this, they climbed to eighth. Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino are 14th, despite sliding briefly into a snow bank this morning.
The final leg is the shortest of the weekend and brings the introduction of the Power Stage -- a new live television test at the end of the rally which offers championship bonus points to the fastest three drivers. Competitors leave Karlstad at 05.30 and tackle two loops of three stages, ending with the 4.16km Gustavsfors TV stage. They return to Karlstad for the finish at 17.23 after a further 92.26km of competition.