Hirvonen leads after leg one

Hirvonen leads after leg oneFrom Ford Press [ 12/06/2009 ].
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The Ford World Rally Team led throughout today's opening leg of the Acropolis Rally of Greece. Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila topped the leaderboard in their record-breaking Ford Focus RS World Rally Car for most of the sun-drenched day in the mountains north-west of Athens.

When the Finns dropped time during the final speed test, team-mates and fellow countrymen Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen moved to the front to end the day with a 3.0sec advantage.

Latvala's car slid wide into a ditch on the outside of a tight right corner on the final special stage and the 3min 30sec it took to manhandle it back onto the road dropped him to 11th.

Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr, driving a third Focus RS WRC for the team, lie eighth tonight.

This seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship marks the start of the second half of the season. With a new base in the holiday resort of Loutraki, 80km west of the Greek capital, organisers made full use of the historic Corinth Canal nearby to host last night's start ceremony.

Today's action took competitors around the Gulf of Corinth towards Itea for classic Acropolis tests not used for several years. Six stages were scheduled, although one was cancelled pre-event, so drivers faced 119.37km of competition.

Blistering temperatures touched 37ºC in the run-up to the rally, although a strong breeze today made conditions slightly more bearable. However, it was still baking hot inside the cars as drivers tackled the rocky gravel tracks near Loutraki and high in the Parnassos mountains, near Itea.

A combination of the heat and the rough roads made it a tough test for Pirelli's Scorpion tyres, but the Ford trio were delighted with the performance of the rubber in the arduous conditions.

Latvala took full advantage of a favourable start position to take the lead on the opening test after the slippery gravel tracks were swept clean by the early starters to leave a faster line. He extended his lead to 10.3sec before a mistake midway through the final 23.76km Thiva test cost him the lead.

"I was trying to drive as fast as possible to increase my lead," explained Latvala. "I drove a long downhill section into a medium left corner before a tight right bend. I braked too late for the first bend and the rear of the car slid into a ditch at the hairpin. It was a driver mistake and I'm really disappointed because it has made things hard for Mikko and the team tomorrow. I will try to climb back into the points but I can't push too much otherwise I will wear my tyres too quickly."

"I enjoyed a strong, clean run this morning. Road position certainly helped on the first stage, which had a lot of slippery gravel on the surface, but not as much on the second test which wasn't as loose. I could have pushed more but it wasn't necessary. 
There was a lot of dust in the first stage and I also had to ease off when a pin holding the bonnet came loose. I could see the bonnet lifting on faster sections and I was worried that it would break off," added 24-year-old Latvala.

Hirvonen was second in the start order and while that was far from ideal, it gave him an advantage over championship rival Sebastien Loeb who started first. Hirvonen settled into a comfortable third before Latvala's mistake, and a rapid change of tactics from second-placed Dani Sordo, promoted the Focus RS WRC driver into the overnight lead.

"The gravel was so loose and slippery in places everything seemed to happen in slow motion," said 28-year-old Hirvonen. "The car has been perfect and I was counting on ending the day in second or third tonight to have a good start position tomorrow. I was surprised to find myself in first, and while it's good to lead, it will be difficult tomorrow cleaning the roads."

"Tomorrow's stages are slower and steeper, with plenty of hairpins so the nature of them won't work in our favour, but this is the toughest round of the season and there are plenty of twists and turns to come yet – in many senses," he added.

Abu Dhabi's Al Qassimi steadily climbed the order to end the day in a points-scoring position.

"Despite the loose road conditions and high temperatures, I found a good pace. I came very close to rolling when the car landed on its nose after a crest but we survived. This is a really tough rally and I'm happier with my performance than I was here last year, and I hope that continues," he said.

Ford Team Director Malcolm Wilson said: "Everything was going to plan until Jari-Matti's mistake on the final stage. That was a disappointment and it means that while Mikko leads tonight, he must open the stages and clean the roads in the morning. It's a difficult position, but Jari-Matti proved in the last round in Sardinia that it is possible to win from that situation and this is a long, hard rally."

After today's marathon leg, tomorrow's action is based closer to Loutraki. Restarting at 08:30, drivers tackle two identical clockwise loops of three tests in the Peloponnese region, a traditional Acropolis venue during the 1980s but new to all the current competitors.

They tackle 135.36km, the two loops split by a return to Loutraki for service. Drivers return for the overnight halt at 19:18.