Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team’s world title aspirations took yet another unexpected twist on the winding asphalt roads of today’s dramatic opening leg of Rallye de France.
Both Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen went off the road en route to fifth and sixth places respectively.  But with two days still remaining of this 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Finnish duo are in a position to enhance Ford’s title challenge after the retirement of championship leader Sébastien Loeb with engine problems.
After yesterday evening’s start ceremony in the centre of Strasbourg, capital of the Alsace region in north-east France, competition began in earnest today.  Drivers journeyed south-west for two identical loops of asphalt speed tests, covering 148.38km on vineyard tracks and woodland roads in the lower slopes of the Vosges mountains.
A hot, dry day was in store as drivers left the city and Michelin’s hard compound tyres were the selection of most leading drivers for the day.  However, damp patches lingered under the trees on the cold asphalt this morning and Latvala gambled by opting for soft compound rubber initially, before reverting to the harder version as temperatures climbed to 27ºC.
Both Latvala and Hirvonen went off the road in the third stage, the 36.00km Pays d’Ormont, which is the longest of the rally.  Latvala dropped 80sec to plunge from third overall to ninth, a time loss that ultimately cost him the lead tonight.  The 26-year-old recovered well to convincingly win the final stage of the morning loop to return to the mid-leg Strasbourg service in seventh.
“I played a risk card with my tyre choice.  As the tyres became hot towards the end of the stage, the back of the car started to move and in a left hand bend, it slid away.  I tried to brake but the car went off onto the grass.  It was soft and the car became stuck, and spectators had to push me back on the road,” said Latvala, who enjoyed a stiffer, more stable car set-up after a successful test last week.
Hirvonen was sixth when he clipped a bank early in the stage.  “I made a mistake a few kilometres after the start by entering a slow right corner too quickly,” he explained.  “The impact knocked the front left tyre off the wheel rim and it filled with mud and grass.  Afterwards the steering pulled to the left, and the vibration was so bad Jarmo’s pace notes sounded like they were coming from a lamb!”
Latvala showed superb pace during the repeat of the stages this afternoon.  He posted three second fastest times and a third quickest to propel himself up the leaderboard into fifth, 73.7sec from the lead.
“I feel confident with the car and the new set-up is working well.  We made a big step forward in last week’s test, especially with the stability.  It’s a shame that the leaderboard doesn’t truly reflect the performance because without my mistake I could have been leading.  Tomorrow’s stages are more open and the grip is good, so I want to climb further up the order,” added Latvala.
Hirvonen missed a junction on the repeat pass over the stage, and although the time loss allowed his team-mate to move ahead, the 31-year-old retained sixth, just 6.9sec behind his colleague.
“There was so much gravel on the road during the long stage this afternoon, it was like sweeping the track on a gravel event.  It’s a shame about the mistake but tomorrow I need to climb the order and try to take as many points as I can here.  I must be fast, but sensible.  I have the opportunity and must make the most of it,” said Hirvonen, who lies second in the drivers’ series, 15 points from the lead.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr lie 16th in the team’s other Fiesta RS WRC.  Al Qassimi, competing for his native Team Abu Dhabi squad, said it was difficult to maintain confidence this morning when many places were damp and covered in dirt and loose gravel that had been dragged onto the road by the cars ahead.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with the speed of both the drivers and the Fiesta RS WRC.  “Mikko made an uncharacteristic error this morning and Jari-Matti got stuck and sadly lost what I feel could have been the lead.  To produce the pace we have today is hugely encouraging,” he said.
News from other Ford teams
Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson are eighth for the M-Sport Stobart Ford team, having held fifth before a slow puncture in the penultimate stage cost more than a minute.  Team-mates Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor are 10th in another Fiesta RS WRC, despite the Norwegian driver believing his choice of soft tyres this morning was a mistake.  Evgeny Novikov / Denis Giraudet dropped more than a minute with a puncture in stage three but lie 11th, four places ahead of Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin, who were also puncture victims in stage six.  FERM Power Tools crew Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte are ninth while Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino hold 13th.
Tomorrow’s Route
The second leg is the longest of the rally – at 148.39km it is 0.1km longer than today!  After leaving Strasbourg at 06.45, competitors journey south for two identical loops of four tests to the west of Colmar.  The route takes drivers deeper into the Vosges for higher altitude tests, and includes the climb of Le Grand Ballon, the rally’s high point at 1340 metres.  Colmar hosts a brief service zone between the two laps.  The leg ends with a new street test in Mulhouse before competitors reach the overnight halt at 19.24.
Leaderboard after Day 1
1.  D Sordo/C Del Barrio                ESP             Mini John Cooper        1hr 23min 02.1sec
2.  P Solberg/C Patterson               NOR             Citroen DS3             1hr 23min 03.1sec
3.  S Ogier/J Ingrassia         FRA             Citroen DS3             1hr 23min 04.9sec
4.  K Meeke/P Nagle                     GBR             Mini John Cooper        1hr 23min 56.6sec
5.  J-M Latvala/M Anttila               FIN             Ford Fiesta RS  1hr 24min 15.8sec
6.  M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen               FIN             Ford Fiesta RS  1hr 24min 22.7sec
7.  A Araujo/M Ramalho          PRT             Mini John Cooper        1hr 25min 25.2sec
8.  M Østberg/J Andersson       &n bsp;       NOR             Ford Fiesta RS  1hr 25min 38.9sec
9.  D Kuipers/F Miclotte                NLD             Ford Fiesta RS  1hr 25min 48.9sec
10 H Solberg/I Minor            NOR             Ford Fiesta RS  1hr 26min 20.1sec

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