BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila lie third after today's opening leg of Rally de España.  The Finns are 19.9sec from the lead in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car after a day of mixed surface speed tests in the hills west of Barcelona.  Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are fifth in another Focus RS WRC.

The Ford duo sampled a demanding day's competition in this 12th and penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship.  The rally was a pure asphalt encounter in recent years but to celebrate its 20th season in the WRC, organisers reverted to its original format of mixed surface competition.  It is the first traditional mixed gravel and asphalt round of the championship since 1996.

Latvala and Hirvonen tackled two identical loops of three special stages covering 125.96km, with their Focus RS WRCs in full gravel specification and fitted with Pirelli's hard compound Scorpion tyres.  Two stages were mixed surface and one was dirt only, but the bias over the day leaned heavily towards gravel.  The constant surface changes tested the drivers' rhythm, while the asphalt sections became slippery as cars dragged stones onto the roads as they cut corners in search of the shortest route.

Fog made the gravel roads damp this morning and Latvala was second initially, despite stalling his engine at the start of the opening stage.  He slipped to third by the mid-leg service break in the rally base of Salou, 13.1sec from the lead.  As the sun broke through and temperatures rose to 20ºC, the surface dried for the afternoon tests.  Latvala maintained his hold on the final podium place and will restart tomorrow with Petter Solberg just 2.5sec behind.

"A lot of gravel was pulled onto the asphalt by the cars ahead of us this morning and I didn't expect so much," he said.  "It surprised me and spoiled my driving.  The car set-up was great, the improvement needed to come from me.  It was a demanding morning, with fog adding to the difficulties.  The afternoon started well but I over-cooked the tyres on the long test and that cost time on the next stage as well.

"On the final stage I hit a big rock on a gravel section with the right front wheel, and the noise from the front of the car made me think I had punctured the tyre.  I eased off but when the surface switched to gravel the noise stopped so I speeded up again.  I'm annoyed because it was just a bent wheel and I lost time that I could have avoided.  I wanted to be further up the leaderboard but I had a good asphalt test before the rally, so I'm feeling confident about tomorrow on that surface," he added.    

Hirvonen ended the morning in fifth, 11.4sec behind his team-mate.  The 30-year-old Finn remained there on the second pass through the stages and returned to Salou 22.5sec behind Latvala, admitting that he struggled to find a good rhythm throughout the day.   

"I almost went off the road about 1km after the start of the first stage and it knocked my rhythm for the rest of the test," said Hirvonen.  "I attacked too hard in a fast corner that was very slippery.  It came as a nasty surprise!  The mixed surfaces were tricky because the car in gravel specification moved around a lot on asphalt and I needed to be careful, especially on roads that were technical anyway.

"My driving wasn't as clean as I would have liked and I over-heated the brakes on the long stage this afternoon.  It's the first time I've done that in four years.  I know tomorrow's stages well.  I have driven them since 2005, so I hope I can put that experience to good use," he added.

Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr are 12th in the team's other car, despite brake difficulties on the opening stage of each loop.  "There was a lot of loose gravel sitting on top of the roads and the cars running in front of us had also swept more out on to the surface, which made getting the grip with our tyres quite hard," said Al Qassimi.

With the dirt stages completed, the BP Ford mechanics converted the Focus RS WRCs from gravel specification to asphalt trim during an extended service, ahead of two days of sealed surface action.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said it was a 'busy' evening.  "There's a lot of work involved in changing a car from gravel to asphalt set-up – and we had three cars to work on.  I hoped we would be further up the leaderboard after the gravel leg but Jari-Matti delivered good split times on the asphalt sections so that bodes well for tomorrow," he said.

News from other Ford teams

Stobart M-Sport Ford's Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin lie seventh in a Focus RS WRC, despite a lucky escape this morning when Wilson braked too late for a corner and the duo almost slid off the road.  Team-mates Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino are ninth in the Monster World Rally Team-backed car, with Munchi's Ford crew Federico Villagra and José Diaz splitting them in eighth.

Tomorrow’s Route

With the cars now in asphalt trim, competitors depart Salou at 09.00 for two identical loops of stages west of the town covering 126.62km.  The loops are split by a return to the rally's PortAventura base for a 30-minute service break.  Competitors return to the town for the final overnight halt at 17.59.  

Leaderboard after Day 1
1.  S Loeb/D Elena                      FRA             Citroen C4              1hr 25min 26.8sec
2.  S Ogier/J Ingrassia                 FRA             Citroen C4              1hr 25min 30.6sec
3.  J-M Latvala/M Anttila               FIN             Ford Focus RS   1hr 25min 46.7sec
4.  P Solberg/C Patterson               NOR             Citroen C4              1hr 25min 49.2sec
5.  M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen               FIN             Ford Focus RS   1hr 26min 09.2sec
6.  D Sordo/D Vallejo                   ESP             Citroen C4              1hr 26min 21.5sec
7.  M Wilson/S Martin           GBR             Ford Focus RS   1hr 28min 13.7sec
8.  F Villagra/J Diaz                   ARG             Ford Focus RS   1hr 28min 48.0sec
9.  K Block/A Gelsomino         USA             Ford Focus RS   1hr 29min 09.6sec
10 H Solberg/S Prévot           NOR             Ford Fiesta S2000       1hr 29min 48.4sec
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