BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen made a strong start to the 2009 Federation Internationale de L’Automobile World Rally Championship season by splashing their way to third on today's rain-soaked opening leg of Rally Ireland.
The Finns overcame treacherous conditions to steer their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car into a provisional podium place on a day when torrential rain forced organisers to cancel almost 40km of competition due to flooding.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila made a blistering start to lead the rally this morning, but aquaplaned off the road and into retirement on the second speed test. They will restart tomorrow under SupeRally rules in 26th position.
This opening round of the 12-rally campaign is based in Sligo in north-west Ireland and snakes its way through both Northern Ireland and the Republic. After last night's start ceremony in Enniskillen in the North, today's action was based in the mountains east of Sligo in the Republic, where six speed tests were held covering 125.06km. They comprised a mix of bumpy, narrow farm lanes and faster, flowing roads across moorland. The final two tests this evening due to be held across the border in darkness were cancelled as the roads were flooded.
While Hirvonen opted for Pirelli's standard soft compound PZero tyre this morning, such were the conditions that Latvala chose the Sottozero winter tyre for his Focus RS WRC. The rewards were instant and Latvala stormed through the opening Glenboy special stage more than 17sec faster than anyone else and a stunning 42sec quicker than world champion Sébastien Loeb.
Hirvonen quickly settled into third but reflected on some close escapes after the opening loop.
"There was more water than I expected, so much that it was like driving through watersplashes, and I lost control completely in a couple of places," said the 28-year-old. "I wasn't so happy with my tyre choice. It was a 50-50 decision but I think the winter tyre would have been better.
"I hit a bump on the first stage and the impact damaged the light pod. It left the lights facing the wrong way and pointing straight at me through the windscreen. I couldn't see for the glare—but it took me about 5km before I realised all I had to do was to switch them off," he added.
Hirvonen switched to the winter tyre this afternoon and consolidated third, 64.8sec from the lead and with a comfortable two-minute advantage ahead of fourth-placed Henning Solberg.
"I was happier than this morning because I was more confident with the tyres. Considering it was 7ºC and the roads were soaking wet, they worked amazingly well for a winter snow and ice pattern. I lost a few seconds on the final stage when I almost overshot a junction and stalled the engine as I handbraked the car round.
"Dani Sordo is in my sights as he is just 20sec ahead. Tomorrow's stages are faster so I hope I can pick up time on him. It's a shame tonight tests were cancelled because I enjoy driving in the dark and it would have been exciting. I hoped to regain some time on him in those stages," added Hirvonen.
After his blistering opening stage, Latvala's day ended in the second stage.
"I came into a fast left corner that tightened, with a bank on the outside," he explained. "The car snapped sideways in the water and I tried to correct it, but in doing so I was forced to cut and the front left of the car hit a rock. The impact threw the car across the road and into the bank. I drove 10km to the finish with two punctures. The front left track control arm was broken and although we tried to fix it with straps, they weren't strong enough. The driveshaft also came out but we were able to repair it. I'm so disappointed and feel I have let the team down. I should have been more careful."
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr hold 12th in the third BP Ford Abu Dhabi car. Al Qassimi lost a minute after sliding off the road on the afternoon's opening stage but was pushed back into the action by spectators.
"I entered a muddy corner and was trying to keep the car on the line but it slipped out and I lost control. We were heading for some trees on my left but at the last second I pulled the handbrake and hit a tree side-on. I was doing about 50kph and if I'd hit the tree head-on at that speed the impact would have caused far more damage," explained Al Qassimi.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on a dramatic day.
"It was the best start to an asphalt rally that I can remember with Focus cars holding first and second, but sadly it didn't last. Jari-Matti made an excellent tyre choice but was caught out in difficult conditions. His retirement put the team under pressure but Mikko responded well to hold third in what was a solid day," he said.
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Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) struggled on the opening stage in heavy rain and darkness and was seventh. But the Frenchman was fastest on the remaining five stages to move into the lead this afternoon. He heads team-mate Dani Sordo by 44.4sec, the Spaniard complaining of throttle troubles on the final stage this morning. Stobart driver Henning Solberg (Ford) is fourth with team-mates Conrad Rautenbach and Sébastien Ogier (Citroen) rounding off the top six, despite Rautenbach puncturing a tyre on stage three. Chris Atkinson (Citroen) is seventh despite his bonnet flipping up and shattering his windscreen in stage three and then aquaplaning into a pole on stage six. Surprise of the day was Stobart driver Urmo Aava (Ford) who led after the morning loop before sliding into a ditch and retiring on the final stage. He will restart tomorrow under SupeRally rules.
The second leg is based in the Fermanagh lakeland area of Northern Ireland, north of Enniskillen. After leaving Sligo at 06.25, drivers face two identical loops of three stages, split by service in the town. They cover 133.36km of competition before returning to Sligo for the overnight halt at 18.03.
Stage 1: 1. Latvala 12min 44.0sec; 2. Aava + 17.6; 3. McShea + 27.1; 4. Hirvonen + 31.5; 5. Sordo + 32.7; 6. Solberg + 35.9; 11. Al Qassimi + 59.6.
Stage 2: 1. Loeb 8min 31.5sec; 2. Aava + 2.4; 3. Hirvonen + 16.1; 4. Sordo + 17.8; 5. Solberg + 21.7; 6. Al Qassimi + 24.4; 29. Latvala + 1:52.2.
Overall: 1. Aava 21min 35.5sec; 2. Loeb + 22.0; 3. Hirvonen + 27.6; 4. Sordo + 30.5; 5. McShea + 32.8; 6. Solberg + 37.6; 10. Al Qassimi + 1:04.0; 14. Latvala + 1:32.2.
Stage 3: 1. Loeb 14min 35.2sec; 2. Aava + 15.3; 3. Hirvonen + 18.6; 4. Sordo + 21.7; 5. Solberg + 33.1; 6. Rautenbach + 41.0; 11. Al Qassimi + 1:21.8.
Overall: 1. Aava 36min 26.0sec; 2. Loeb + 6.7; 3. Hirvonen + 30.9; 4. Sordo + 36.9; 5. Solberg + 55.4; 6. Rautenbach + 1:26.2; 10. Al Qassimi + 2:10.5.
Stage 4: 1. Loeb 11min 37.4sec; 2. Sordo + 2.0; 3. Hirvonen + 10.0; 4. Atkinson + 29.8; 5. Aava + 38.5; 6. Solberg + 42.1; 20. Al Qassimi + 2:17.1.
Overall: 1. Loeb 48min 10.1sec; 2. Aava + 31.8; 3. Sordo + 32.2; 4. Hirvonen + 34.2; 5. Solberg + 1:30.8; 6. Rautenbach + 2:28.3; 13. Al Qassimi + 4:20.9.
Stage 5: 1. Loeb 7min 40.5sec; 2. Sordo + 8.3; 3. Hirvonen + 11.5; 4. Atkinson + 20.0; 5. Aava + 28.4; 6. Ogier + 30.2; 11. Al Qassimi + 56.6.
Overall: 1. Loeb 55min 50.6sec; 2. Sordo + 40.5; 3. Hirvonen + 45.7; 4. Aava + 1:00.2; 5. Solberg + 2:16.6; 6. Rautenbach + 3:09.2; 12. Al Qassimi + 5:17.5.
Stage 6: 1. Loeb 13min 44.6sec; 2. Sordo + 3.9; 3. Hirvonen + 19.1; 4. Ogier + 47.0; 5. Solberg + 52.8; 6= Wilson, Rautenbach + 1:09.1; 10. Al Qassimi + 1:43.8.
Overall: 1. Loeb 1hr 09min 35.2sec; 2. Sordo + 44.4; 3. Hirvonen + 1:04.8; 4. Solberg + 3:09.4; 5. Rautenbach + 4:18.3; 6. Ogier + 4:23.2; 12. Al Qassimi + 7:01.3.
Stage 7: Cancelled
Stage 8: Cancelled