BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team made a solid start to Rallye Deutschland to hold third and fifth places after today’s opening leg in the vineyards of Germany’s Mosel region. Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila lie third in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, with team-mates and fellow Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen just 9.8sec and two places behind in a similar car.
This ninth round of the FIA World Rally Championship returns to the series after a year’s absence. It began last night when huge crowds packed into the centre of Trier, Germany’s oldest city, for the start ceremony beneath its Roman Porta Nigra gate. The action began in earnest this morning when the 78 starters journeyed east into the heart of the wine-growing area. They tackled two identical loops of three asphalt speed tests, covering 134.04km over woodland roads and tracks among the vines.
The fast, but narrow, vineyard roads here are unique in the WRC. The stepped tracks criss-cross the hillsides among the grapes, linked by tight hairpin bends which are often obscured by tall vines leaning into the roads.
The rain and cool weather experienced in the run-up to the rally gave way to scorching sunshine and temperatures climbed to 30ºC. Both Latvala, winner of the previous round in Finland earlier this month, and Hirvonen opted for Pirelli’s soft compound tyres this morning. As the mercury in the thermometers climbed, both chose harder rubber this afternoon.
Latvala was third through the day’s opening speed test and apart from being edged out briefly by Hirvonen, the 25-year-old remained there for the duration of the leg. “My target for this rally was to finish in the top five. Tonight I’m in third, so I’m very happy with that. It’s a strange feeling for me to be in a podium position in an asphalt rally. The car has improved since the last asphalt round in Bulgaria, with a different engine mapping and damper set-up, and it feels more stable,” he said.
“I learned a lot about driving on asphalt when I raced in the Nürburgring 24 Hours earlier in the year. I found a better way of braking and turning into corners and I have a faster and more flowing style. There’s still work to do with both car and driver but although it’s not easy for me on asphalt, I’m enjoying it,” he added.
Hirvonen climbed above Latvala to hold third after the second stage, but the 30-year-old was knocked back by his team-mate on the next test and just 3.6sec separated the pair after the opening loop. Hirvonen slipped behind Sébastien Ogier on the penultimate test but only 3.6sec divide the pair this evening, with the duelling trio covered by less than 10sec.
“There was a lot of dirt on the road this morning and it was difficult to find my confidence with the changing grip,” said 30-year-old Hirvonen. “I lost some seconds because of that but perhaps I was also over-cautious. There was no pattern as to how or where I lost time. Sometimes it was in the slower sections and sometimes in the faster parts. I didn’t have the consistency I would like and I need to improve that before the long stage in the military area tomorrow. I need to be ready for that. Thankfully the forecast suggests it will be dry, because I wasn’t looking forward to that in the wet.”
Abu Dhabi’s Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr are 16th in the team’s other Focus RS WRC. They dropped more than two minutes after sliding into a ditch near the start of the opening stage, from which their car was helped back onto the road by spectators. “It was quite a shock to come off, but we are grateful that our fans were able to help us get back out to the competition without forfeiting too much time. It is a shame to have come up against the tricky German terrain so soon in our campaign, but we have a whole weekend of stages ahead of us to make up for it,” said Al Qassimi.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said: “Jari-Matti has followed up his victory in Finland with his best performance so far on asphalt. Mikko is still in the battle for the podium and after his big accident in Finland, it was a confidence-boosting day for him. We have made a huge performance step with the car since the last asphalt rally in Bulgaria and had no issues today.”
News from other Ford teams
Stobart M-Sport Ford’s François Duval and Denis Giraudet are sixth in the Belgian driver’s first WRC outing for 18 months. Duval lost a minute on the third stage after a front right driveshaft broke near the end of the previous test. Team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin are 4.7sec behind in seventh, despite brake difficulties this morning and a car set-up that was too soft. Monster World Rally Team duo Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino are 10th in another Focus RS WRC.
The second leg is the longest and toughest of the rally. It contains two passes over the 48.00km Panzerplatte in the daunting Baumholder military training area, the longest test of the season where a mixture of surfaces will test drivers to the maximum. In contrast, they must also tackle fast, flowing and smooth woodland roads in Saarland. After leaving Trier at 06.30, competitors face two identical loops of four stages covering 185.94km before returning for the overnight halt at 20.45. Trier hosts a mid-leg service and there is also a 15-minute remote service at Birkenfeld before each pass over the Panzerplatte test.
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- Latvala delights home fans by leading Rally Finland
- Francois Duval rejoins Stobart for Rallye Deutschland
- Pirelli ready for tough Tarmac test
- Jari Latvala and Sebastien Ogier all set to take over