Duval sets sights on victory

Duval sets sights on victoryFrom Ford Press [ 18/10/2003 ].
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Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers François Duval and Stéphane Prévot hold second position after a dramatic second leg of the Rallye de France - Tour de Corse today. The Belgian duo led this 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship for most of the day in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car after a gripping battle for supremacy in conditions that were predictable only for their inconsistency.

Duval and Prévot will start tomorrow's final leg just 17.9sec behind Norwegian driver Petter Solberg as Duval chases the dual goal of becoming both the first Belgian driver and the youngest driver in history, at just 22, to win a world rally. The Focus RS claimed another two stage victories from today's six asphalt speed tests which, at 190.00km, comprised one of the longest days of the season. Ford BP team-mates Markko Märtin and Michael Park were fastest through the opening special stage in their Castrol-backed car while Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen were quickest in the next in their M-Sport run Focus RS. It was 22-year-old Hirvonen's first stage victory on a world rally. Märtin lies 12th tonight after losing more than five minutes this morning by going off the road and breaking a wheel while Hirvonen lies 10th.

The Corsican mountains are notorious for unpredictable and constantly changing weather. Today blue skies and sunshine frequently gave way to black clouds and rain and trying to predict conditions in the mountains from the service park on the coast at Ajaccio was extremely difficult. It made tyre selection incredibly hard, especially when decisions had to be made in the service park for tests that did not start for almost two hours. Added to the challenge was that drivers cutting corners in the morning dragged dirt and gravel onto the roads, making them slippery in the afternoon when the tests were repeated.

Duval, second overnight, slipped to third on the opening stage but took the lead on the next test when both Märtin and rally leader Sebastien Loeb went off the road. Ironically, on the very stage in which he gained the lead, Duval dropped 15 seconds when he stalled the engine of his Focus RS at the start.

His car never missed a beat and Duval remained at the front from a hard-charging Solberg until the final stage when a poor tyre choice cost time. "We chose intermediate rubber with extra cuts for rain but it stayed dry and we should have used standard intermediate tyres," said Duval. "It was damp rather than wet, with no standing water but it proves just how difficult it is to predict the weather in the mountains. But I'm happy because it has been another good day. If the weather stays damp and wet tomorrow we'll struggle to catch Petter. But it seems as though it may be dry and that would be good for us because Michelin's tyres are the strongest in those conditions. Everything is possible."

Märtin leapt from fifth to second on the opening stage, reducing Loeb's lead to just 9.6sec, but his victory hopes ended on the next stage when he slid off the road and dropped more than five minutes as he and Park struggled to change a broken right front wheel. "I was trying too hard to regain the time I lost yesterday when I spun," said the 27-year-old Estonian. "I braked too late for a corner and slid wide into the mountainside. The impact broke the rim and we had to stop and change it. It was my mistake, I was driving too fast. I'm really disappointed because the car was so good and we've lost our chance of victory now. It was difficult on dry weather tyres in the rain but it was the same for most drivers."

He admitted it was hard to rediscover his motivation for the rest of the day but he climbed from 14th to 12th, using the competitive distance to test spring and roll bar combinations for wet conditions. "I'm just driving and trying to keep things interesting but I'm not pushing at 100 per cent now," he added.

Hirvonen has been impressive on his Corsican debut. He was consistently in the top 10 times and is well-placed to battle tomorrow with former world champions Tommi Mäkinen and Richard Burns. "After today I know how to drive on wet asphalt but a little more dry asphalt tomorrow would be good so that I can learn about that as well. We made perfect tyre choices all day and we have a perfect car. Richard and Tommi are not so far away, so let's see if we can move further up," said Hirvonen, who started the day in 16th.

His only problem came on the opening stage of the afternoon loop when he was caught out by a damp patch and slid off the road into a fence. The impact damaged the sill on Lehtinen's side of the car but Hirvonen said: "We were lucky we went off sideways rather than forwards otherwise the damage could have been much worse."

Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson praised Duval's composure today. "He was under great pressure on the final stage when he knew he was losing time through a poor tyre choice. But he kept his cool and limited his losses to leave him with a chance of victory. It was a mature piece of driving. I'm disappointed for Markko but Mikko has enjoyed a tremendous day and has learned much," he said.