Red-hot Latvala warms to Welsh winter wonderland Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila overcame savage weather conditions to lead Wales Rally GB following today's opening leg. The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team pair leads this 15th and...
Red-hot Latvala warms to Welsh winter wonderland
Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila overcame savage weather conditions to lead Wales Rally GB following today's opening leg. The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team pair leads this 15th and final round of the FIA World Rally Championship by 12.9sec in their Focus RS World Rally Car after wintry weather decimated the schedule. Team-mates and fellow Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are 29th in another Focus RS WRC after crashing this afternoon.
Following last night's start ceremony next to Cardiff's festive winter wonderland show, competitors discovered winter wasn't quite so wonderful when they entered the remote forests more than 150km north. Snow and ice covered the gravel tracks in many places and organisers last night cancelled more than half today's scheduled 123.68km of competition on safety grounds. More freezing temperatures overnight brought the cancellation of both passes of the already shortened Hafren speed test due to ice.
So the day was reduced to two identical loops of two special stages near Aberystwyth in mid-Wales, before two passes in darkness over a short spectator-friendly test further south. Just 49.70km remained but the weather continued to do its utmost to disrupt proceedings. Ice lurked in exposed areas and the early morning sunshine was replaced by hail. This afternoon lightning preceded torrential rain and few drivers were unhappy to see the back of such treacherous conditions.
Latvala was fastest through the 18.28km Myherin, the longest stage of the day, to complete the opening loop in third, just 3.9sec from the lead. He repeated the feat on the second pass, this time by more than 11sec, to move into the lead and extended his advantage with a third fastest time on the penultimate stage.
"Victory here would mean everything to me," said 23-year-old Latvala. "Conditions were extreme with heavy rain, snow, ice, mud and water -- but I'm happy! Today's stages are the most difficult of the rally but the weather made them even harder. In places I couldn't see because my wipers couldn't work fast enough. Loeb will attack tomorrow and I have to be prepared for that, especially on the opening stage where there might be more ice.
"The first stage this morning was very hard but I started to gain confidence on the next test in Myherin and built on that. Pirelli's tyres worked well on the gravel, which they are designed for, but it was hard to stop the car in the ice and snow. It's a shame the stages were shortened and cancelled because they are great roads but it was the right decision. I would have been happy on those roads with winter tyres, but not with this rubber," added Latvala.
Hirvonen completed the opening loop in 11th after a cautious start but rolled in the Sweet Lamb test, losing almost four minutes and dropping to 46th. He recovered to 29th, despite being unable to use full power from his car's engine as mud blocked the radiator after his accident.
"I drove through the famous watersplash near the end of the stage and I knew it would throw the car sideways, but it threw me further than I expected. The car hit a bank and rolled onto its roof. The spectators weren't allowed to help us push the car back onto its wheels and it took us nearly four minutes to get going again," explained 28-year-old Hirvonen.
"Conditions were difficult but maybe I was too steady this morning. While I needed to be cautious, I didn't need to be that cautious. I could see the lines on the road from Sebastien Loeb ahead of me so I followed those and obtained more grip, but it was hard to stop on the ice with gravel tyres. It would have been too dangerous to run the cancelled stages because the grip was changing all the time -- from gravel to ice to snow," added Hirvonen.
Khalid Al Qassimi, making his debut in Britain, and Michael Orr lie 21st in a third Focus RS WRC, the Abu Dhabi driver admitting: "I didn't have confidence in those conditions so I had to learn what to do. They were brutal and staying on the road was the sole objective in most places. Every time I thought I was finding some rhythm, I hit a patch of road which was just pure ice."
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Making the best of the improved conditions further down the start order were inexperienced youngsters Sebastien Ogier (Citroen) and Mads Ostberg (Subaru). This year's junior world champion Ogier, making his debut in a WRC car, led until the second pass through Myherin when he stopped briefly with a gearbox problem and slipped to eighth. Ostberg held second until he spun in the same test and ended the day in fourth. Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) won two stages to climb to second, ahead of Per-Gunnar Andersson (Suzuki). Behind Ostberg, Petter Solberg (Subaru) and Dani Sordo (Citroen) rounded off the top six. Stobart driver Francois Duval (Ford) lost 20sec after spinning on stage six, but the Belgian holds seventh, while team-mate Henning Solberg (Ford) had differential problems this morning and is ninth. The only major retirement was Chris Atkinson (Subaru) who crashed on the penultimate test and his car briefly caught fire.
The second day covers familiar territory. Drivers face two identical loops of three forest tests before the traditional Saturday evening stage over a slightly modified route inside Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. Each loop begins with the classic Resolfen test near Swansea before two more stages further north, near Brecon. After a 07.15 restart, drivers face 129.21km of competition before returning to Swansea for the final overnight halt at 20.18.