Hirvonen still third in Ireland
- 1st February 2009, 9:25am
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen maintained their grip on third place during today's second leg of Rally Ireland. After more than 48 hours of continuous rain the asphalt roads of north-west Ireland were soaked. However, the wet weather failed to wash away the hopes of the Finns who won this afternoon's long opening speed test in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila climbed from 25th to 17th in their similar Focus RS WRC after returning to the action under SupeRally rules following yesterday's retirement. Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr lie eighth in the team's third car, the Abu Dhabi driver on target for his first ever point in this opening round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Today's action took drivers from the rally's Sligo base in the Republic of Ireland across the border into Northern Ireland, for two identical loops of three speed tests north of Enniskillen covering 133.36km. The narrow, bumpy lanes were awash with standing water and such were the conditions that the Ford trio opted for Pirelli's Sottozero winter tyre throughout the day â€“ a pattern more accustomed to being employed in snow and ice.
Hirvonen was third on the opening stage but a power steering problem towards the end of the next test cost almost 20sec. The 28-year-old Finn was unable to make repairs before the final stage of the loop and dropped a further 30sec. Despite the time loss, he retained third as he returned to service in Sligo where mechanics replaced the power steering system.
"Five kilometres from the end of the stage the pump broke going into a corner," he said. "The car moved around a lot in the water and it was hard to 'catch' the sudden moves without power steering."
With realistic hopes of catching second-placed Dani Sordo gone, and almost three minutes in hand over fourth-placed Henning Solberg, Hirvonen took the sensible decision to ease his pace. Engineers reduced the power available in his Focus RS WRC to preserve the car's engine, which must be used in Rally Norway in two weeks.
"I had a good rhythm this afternoon, probably the best feeling I've had with the car all weekend. I could have driven quicker but it wouldn't mean anything with the large time gaps. There was a lot of standing water and I think the tyres worked well because the water cooled them down, closer to the temperatures in which they are usually used. Temperatures are falling quickly and it could be icy tomorrow which will make it tricky. The pressure will still be there," he said.
Latvala's target for the final two days was a cautious run to the finish to guarantee points for the team. He used the morning loop to rebuild his confidence before stepping up his pace this afternoon, ending the day with second on the final test, just 0.6sec behind the fastest time. Latvala made the set-up of his Focus RS WRC harder for the afternoon and the 23-year-old Finn was pleased with the extra stability.
"I started the day at zero but increased my speed as the leg went on," he said. "A year ago on my first rally with the team in Monte Carlo my times were a long way away from the fastest drivers, but I'm much closer here so I'm very satisfied. I've learned a lot about how to drive and brake in standing water. How can it rain so much? I've never driven in conditions where the car aquaplanes. There's so much water that the grip changes all the time. The main aim is to finish and regain my confidence so I'm not going to take risks in these conditions and I'll continue at a safe speed tomorrow."
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr climbed to eighth in the team's third car, the pair recovering well after sliding into a tree yesterday. "The stages were very unpredictable, but I have more confidence and I lifted my pace," said Al Qassimi. "They were very quick with lots of high speed sections and I spent a lot of time in fifth gear going flat-out, but I also enjoyed the twisty sections too. The fast sections were awesome and I felt like I was flying over the crests. I need to keep the right balance because I'm still learning my limits. I'm not re-evaluating my strategy. I'm focusing on a top 10 finish and if I end up in the points, then that's great."
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said: "Jari-Matti has boosted his confidence and has gone quicker as the day went on. Unfortunately Mikko couldn't take the challenge for second to Dani Sordo because of a power steering problem. I would like to get though the final leg tomorrow with no issues and keep Mikko and Jari-Matti in the points."
News from our Rivals
SÃ©bastien Loeb (Citroen) extended his overnight advantage to 69.1sec, despite sliding off the road on the afternoon's opening test. The Frenchman won five of the six stages. Team-mate Dani Sordo retained second, although the Spaniard lost a few seconds when he stalled in the same stage. Behind Hirvonen, Stobart driver Henning Solberg (Ford) holds fourth, despite a front right puncture on the opening stage. Chris Atkinson (Citroen) upped his pace to climb to fifth ahead of team-mate SÃ©bastien Ogier. Ogier slipped to eighth on the opening stage after going off the road and losing 1min 45sec, before regaining sixth this afternoon. Fifth-placed Conrad Rautenbach (Citroen) was the only major retirement when he slid into a ditch on the opening stage.
The final day is the shortest with just 68.86km of competition scheduled. However, that has been reduced as the 27.90km Arigna stage, the longest of the rally, has been shortened to just 10.88km due to an unsafe bridge in the second part of the test. Drivers leave Sligo at 07.40 for five stages, including a spectacular short test through the streets of Donegal town, before the finish back in Sligo at 15.10.
Leaderboard after Day 2
1. S Loeb/D Elena (F) CitroÃ«n C4 2h20m02.8s
2. D Sordo/M Marti (E) CitroÃ«n C4 +1m09.1s
3. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen (FIN) Ford Focus RS +2m30.9s
4. H Solberg/C Menkerud (N) Ford Focus RS +5m57.4s
5. C Atkinson/S Prevot (AUS) CitroÃ«n C4 +6m02.1s
6. S Ogier/J Ingrassia (F) CitroÃ«n C4 +9m13.4s
7. M Wilson/S Martin (GB) Ford Focus RS +9m51.3s
8. K Al Qassimi/M Orr (UAE) Ford Focus RS +11m50s
9. E Boland/D Morrissey (IRL) Subaru Impreza +12m40.4s
10. A MacHale/K Duffy (IRL) Ford Focus RS +13m40.4s
11. U Aava/K Sikk (EST) Ford Focus RS +14m16.9s
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