Hirvonen leads but Latvala crashes out

Hirvonen leads but Latvala crashes outFrom Ford Press [ 03/04/2009 ].
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BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lead Rally de Portugal after today's sun-kissed opening day in the hills above the Algarve. After a strong morning in unfavourable conditions, the Finns moved ahead this afternoon and built a 15.0sec lead in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila led initially before rolling 150 metres down a hillside, escaping injury thanks to the strength of their Focus RS.

This fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship began with a spectacular speed test last night in Faro's international soccer stadium.  It moved into top gear this morning in the Serra do Caldeirão hills, north-west of the holiday resort, where competitors tackled two identical loops of three special stages covering 134.00km.

Hirvonen was second in the start order, a less than favourable position as the dry tracks on the western edge of the hills were coated in loose gravel.  The early starters unwittingly swept the stones clear to leave a cleaner and faster line for those behind, but Hirvonen shrugged off that disadvantage and ended the opening loop in third, just 6.4sec from the lead.  The 28-year-old won the afternoon's opening test to take the lead and extended his advantage over the remaining two stages.

"It's great to be leading and I will give everything tomorrow to try to retain that," said Hirvonen.  "I will be first in the start order with a lot of dust and gravel on the surface which will make it difficult.  I don't know if my lead is big enough to offset that disadvantage, and I think start order will play a big part over the next two days, but I have defended my lead from the front before so it can be done.  Before the rally, leading tonight wasn't in my plan but after Jari-Matti's crash our strategy changed.

"This morning my pace notes were a little slow for these roads.  I think that was a carryover from the previous round in Cyprus where the stages were much slower.  I wasn't happy with my rear differential so we replaced it and that brought a big improvement," said Hirvonen.

It wasn't a happy birthday for Latvala.  The Finn, who is 24 today, took full advantage of his lower start position to set fastest time through the morning's opening two tests to build a 10.6sec lead.  However, Latvala crashed heavily in the following stage, his Focus RS plunging over a roadside barrier and rolling down a hillside, eventually coming to rest 150 metres from the track.  Video footage showed the car rolled almost 20 times.  Incredibly both Latvala and Anttila escaped without serious injury thanks to the strength of the car.

"This was the biggest accident of my career," said Latvala.  "All was going well as we approached a right bend over a crest before a slow left corner.  I was carrying too much speed into the crest and the car lifted.  It hit a bank, went up onto two wheels and over the barrier.  I rolled maybe 150m off the road.  As we rolled there was an incredible noise and the roll cage started to fold in around us.  It was very frightening. 

"I should have slowed before the crest, not on top of it.  I was driving with my eyes and not with my pace notes.  I've made it a frustrating period for the team because I've had too many crashes.  I'd like to say a big thank you to the team for building a car that is so strong that we walked away with only a few bruises.  If we had suffered that accident 20 years ago, we probably wouldn't be alive," he added.

Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr lie 21st after Al Qassimi's first experience of the Portuguese stages.  A consistent pace kept him in 13th through the day until a lack of turbo boost on the final test cost six minutes.  "These roads were very fast and I needed to be fully committed over the crests.  It's important to keep the car in the clear line otherwise it's easy to slide wide.  I did slide into the bank on the second stage and I thought the car might be damaged, but everything was OK," he said  

BP Ford team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on a day of mixed fortunes.  "Jari-Matti's accident has taken away our team strength and put the pressure onto Mikko, but he copes well with it.  He must try everything to win this rally and both he and the car have shown good pace here," he said.

"We were happy with Jari-Matti's times.  He wasn't going crazy but crashed at a slow corner where he had a double caution in his pace notes.  Firstly, we're all relieved that both he and Miikka escaped injury.  It was an incredible accident and the fact they are both unhurt is testament to the strength of the Focus RS WRC.  They owe their lives to that.  It is a tribute to the skill and many hours of hard work put in by the team in designing and developing such a robust car that they climbed out uninjured.  

"The crash was a huge disappointment.  Jari-Matti was comfortable and we felt he was under control.  We need to look at what happened and work with him to find the answers.  He will drive for the team in Argentina as planned and I have 100 per cent confidence in his abilities," said Wilson.

News from other Ford teams

Stobart drivers Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin are seventh in a Focus RS, despite pace note difficulties this morning, while team-mates Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud are ninth, after losing time with brake problems this morning.  Munchi's duo Federico Villagra and Jose Diaz lie 12th.

Tomorrow’s Route

The second leg is the longest of the event, covering 145.18km of competition.  After leaving Faro at 08.40, drivers tackle two identical loops of three stages on the northern edge of the Serra do Caldeirão hills, split by a return to the service park at Faro's soccer stadium.  They return to the rally base for the final overnight halt at 18.45.

Leaderboard after Day 1
1.  M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen               FIN             Ford Focus RS   1hr 24min 12.6sec
2.  D Sordo/M Marti                     ESP             Citroen C4              1hr 24min 27.6sec
3.  S Loeb/D Elena                      FRA             Citroen C4              1hr 24min 30.6sec
4.  M Grönholm/T Rautiainen             FIN             Subaru Impreza  1hr 24min 38.5sec
5.  P Solberg/P Mills                   NOR             Citroen Xsara           1hr 24min 54.8sec
6.  S Ogier/J Ingrassia                 FRA             Citroen C4              1hr 25min 16.6sec
7.  M Wilson/S Martin           GBR             Ford Focus RS   1hr 25min 27.2sec
8.  E Novikov/D Moscatt         RUS             Citroen C4              1hr 25min 46.3sec
9.  H Solberg/C Menkerud                NOR             Ford Focus RS   1hr 25min 46.4sec
10 M Østberg/O Unnerud          NOR             Subaru Impreza  1hr 26min 54.7sec