From Ford Press [ 06/03/2011 ].
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Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team maintained a firm grip on third and fourth places after another punishing day in Rally Mexico. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen occupy the final podium place in a Fiesta RS World Rally Car following the second leg of this second round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Fellow Finns and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are one position behind in a similar car, with one day remaining.
This opening gravel event of the 2011 season, and the first dirt rally for the new-generation rally cars, continued to take a heavy toll on competitors. But while several drivers encountered major problems, the Fiesta RS WRCs of Hirvonen and Latvala emerged unscathed, the only difficulty being a puncture for both drivers.
Drivers tackled two identical loops of three tough gravel speed tests in the Sierra de Lobos mountains, near León, 400km north-west of Mexico City. The morning loop ended with a short asphalt test in the city, while the day closed with two special stages at the city's race circuit. The nine tests covered 158.65km.
After sweeping the loose gravel yesterday by virtue of starting first, 30-year-old Hirvonen had the advantage of a better road position today. He consolidated third this morning but was unable to regain the time he hoped on the cars ahead. With second place more than a minute away and a large gap to team-mate Latvala behind, Hirvonen set his sights on eliminating any risks this afternoon.
"Third is a good position, but I was a little disappointed with my speed," he admitted. "I thought the advantage of my start position would allow me to take back more time this morning. I pushed hard, but on a few occasions I slid wide into the gravel on the edge of the road where the big rocks were lying in wait. That wasn't the place to be and I didn't want to take those risks.
"The sensible option now is to avoid the risk of punctures, and keep an eye on what is happening to the guys ahead. I feel in a safe position and I need to keep it. If I'm still third going into the Power Stage tomorrow, then I hope to push and take maximum bonus points. I enjoy the roads that will be used for that.
"I stiffened the rear suspension for the afternoon and perhaps I'll make some changes to the front for tomorrow. They're just small changes though, nothing major," he added.
Latvala punctured the front right tyre near the end of the opening stage but dropped only 15 seconds. "About 5km from the finish I could feel the tyre going down," he said. "By the final kilometre there was no air left but we continued to the finish."
He ended the morning in fourth and the team replaced his car's gearbox in service as a precaution after he reported problems in shifting down. With no pressure from behind, Latvala also adopted a risk-free policy through the second loop, although the 25-year-old still set fastest time on the final gravel test.
"The roads didn't clean as much as yesterday, so our start position didn't give the advantage we hoped. The time gap to the drivers ahead is too big for me to think about chasing, so I'm going to concentrate on keeping neat, tidy lines and push hard for bonus points on the Power Stage. The roads for that have already been used so they should be clean.
"I came here to fight for the podium but I have to think of the bigger picture and it's only round two of the championship. This afternoon I focused on keeping the car in the clean lines, because that helps with acceleration," he added.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said his drivers would aim to consolidate their positions tomorrow. "They took no risks this afternoon, and that won't change in the morning. We didn't make the impression we thought we could on the two Sébastiens ahead, and the final day will be about trying to consolidate the positions we have," he said.
News from other Ford teams
M-Sport Stobart Ford duo Mads Østberg and Jonas Andersson lie sixth in a Fiesta RS WRC, while team-mates Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor are seventh, despite driving the entire day without power steering. Evgeny Novikov and Stéphane Prévot retired from fifth after losing oil pressure in the engine. Team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin retired before the start of the opening stage with a recurrence of yesterday's electrical troubles. Neither will restart tomorrow. Munchi's Ford pair Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc climbed to 13th after yesterday's early retirement, despite brake troubles this morning. FERM Power Tools World Rally Team's Dennis Kuipers and Frederic Miclotte rolled out in the opening stage, while Monster World Rally Team's Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino stopped with broken front suspension after going off the road this afternoon.
The final day is a short, sharp affair, comprising just three stages and 62.00km of competition. Drivers depart León at 07.30 and, after two long tests north and east of the city, the rally closes with the shorter Guanajuato Power Stage. The final test will be broadcast live on television with bonus points awarded to the fastest three drivers. The rally ends back in León at 13.00.