Sweeper Hirvonen brushes off gravel burden to lie third in Mexico

Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team lies third and fourth after today's punishing opening leg of Rally Mexico. On a day when many drivers encountered problems, Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen headed the challenge at the wheel of a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car in third. Team-mates...

Sweeper Hirvonen brushes off gravel burden to lie third in Mexico

Sweeper Hirvonen brushes off gravel burden to lie third in Mexico

Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team lies third and fourth after today's punishing opening leg of Rally Mexico .  On a day when many drivers encountered problems, Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen headed the challenge at the wheel of a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car in third.  Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila overcame a two-minute time loss following a puncture to hold fourth on the loose surface debut of the new Fiesta RS WRC.


This second round of the FIA World Rally Championship is a contrast to last month's opening round in Sweden .  Temperatures of -30ºC were replaced by thermometer levels of 32ºC, and the icebound Scandinavian roads were substituted by rocky gravel tracks in the hills of the Sierra de Lobos mountains, 400km north-west of Mexico City .


Last night's spectacular start ceremony in Guanajuato, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, included a short speed test in the city's streets, plunging underground through tunnels which once formed shafts in the city's gold and silver mines.  The action began in earnest today with nine more special stages covering 142.12km, including two tests in darkness at the city's race circuit.


But it was the dirt roads where today's drama was acted out.  A prolonged period of dry, hot weather in the region left the roads covered in loose stones.  By virtue of a debut victory for the Fiesta RS WRC in Sweden , Hirvonen had the disadvantage of starting first, sweeping the gravel from the surface to leave a cleaner and faster line for those behind.


However, the 30-year-old Finn minimised the time loss with a strong display on roads that climbed to a breathtaking 2737 metres.  The thinner air at that height deprived cars of up to 20 per cent of their power but Hirvonen coped well with both handicaps to claim fourth this morning.  Conditions improved slightly when the stages were repeated this afternoon, and Hirvonen climbed to third, 1min 22.2sec from the lead and clear of the trouble that afflicted so many.


"I'm in a good position and the shoe will be on the other foot tomorrow, because the guys ahead will have to sweep the gravel," he said.  "I need to focus 100 per cent and attack hard to try to regain the time lost through the conditions.  This morning the roads were slippery but things went better than I thought, and I lost less time than I did in the same situation last year. 


"It was more difficult than I expected this afternoon because the roads were still slippery.  I was cautious with the risks I took because I still lack experience of the car and Michelin's tyres on gravel.  But the whole package feels really strong so early in the season.  The car was good on this surface and was very agile in narrow, twisty sections.  The high altitude meant less power and I couldn't carry speed through corners in the way I would like, but that was the same for everyone," he said.


Latvala was third in the start order and enjoyed better road conditions, although the tracks were not as clean as he hoped this morning.  The 25-year-old Finn was fourth until he dropped more than two minutes when stopping to change a rear left puncture and slipped to 10th.  However, he fought back this afternoon to regain fourth.


"The tyre went flat about 5km after the start and I drove another 1km before stopping," explained Latvala.  "It happened on a wide, smooth section so maybe a sharp stone was to blame.  Perhaps not cutting corners to avoid risking punctures will be part of the game this season.  But the tyres are driver-friendly, quite like racing tyres, and they gave me a good feeling. 


"I was too cautious initially but once I found a rhythm then things quickly improved.  I built my confidence and understanding of how the car performs and handles more and more with every stage.  The altitude had a big effect on the power available and I struggled initially with knowing exactly when to change gear," he added.


Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said: "Mikko had a fantastic day considering he was sweeping the road.  Jari-Matti showed great pace but unfortunately he clipped a rock and punctured a tyre.  The team had no issues with the Fiesta RS WRC on its first gravel rally.  Our drivers were pleased with the performance of the engine in the power-sapping altitude.  We simulated the conditions here during testing at Ford's Environmental Testing Laboratory at Dunton Technical Centre in Britain , and that helped us hugely."  


News from other Ford teams


Evgeny Novikov and Stéphane Prévot made a superb debut in their M-Sport Stobart Ford-entered Fiesta RS WRC to hold fifth.  Team-mates Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor were frustrated with their car set-up but changes brought a rapid improvement and they lie sixth.  The third team car of Mads Østberg and Jonas Andersson lies 11th after losing almost four minutes when they changed a puncture this morning.  Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin were fourth in the team's other car until they were sidelined this afternoon with electrical problems.  FERM Power Tools World Rally Team duo Dennis Kuipers and Frederic Miclotte are seventh.  Munchi's Ford World Rally Team pairing Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc retired after hitting a rock and ripping off a wheel from their Fiesta RS WRC.  Monster World Rally Team's Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino had a leg to forget.  An electrical problem forced them to miss last night's opening test at a cost of a 10-minute penalty and the United States pairing then stopped this afternoon with more electrical difficulties.


Tomorrow’s Route


The second leg promises more of the same.  After leaving León at 08.00, competitors face two loops of three gravel stages in the hills north and east of the city.  The morning ends with a second pass over a short asphalt test next to the service park, while the afternoon closes with two more tests at the city's race circuit.  Drivers end the day in León at 20.18 after nine stages covering 158.65km.  


Leaderboard after Day 1

1.  S Ogier/J Ingrassia                        FRA                 Citroen DS3                1hr 27min 22.3sec

2.  S Loeb/D Elena                              FRA                 Citroen DS3                1hr 27min 24.6sec

3.  M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen               FIN                  Ford Fiesta RS          1hr 28min 44.5sec

4.  J-M Latvala/M Anttila                   FIN                  Ford Fiesta RS          1hr 30min 15.9sec

5.  E Novikov/ S Prévot                    RUS                Ford Fiesta RS          1hr 30min 26.3sec

6.  H Solberg/I Minor                         NOR                Ford Fiesta RS          1hr 30min 38.8sec

7.  D Kuipers/F Miclotte                   NED                Ford Fiesta RS          1hr 32min 29.1sec

8.  N Al-Attiyah/G Bernacchini            QAT                 Ford Fiesta S2000      1hr 32min 37.5sec

9.  O Tanak/K Sikk                              EST                 Ford Fiesta S2000      1hr 33min 04.5sec

10 M Prokop/J Tománek                    CZE                 Ford Fiesta S2000      1hr 33min 30.1sec


For more information: Contact Mark Wilford or Georgina Finney at the Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team media desk in León Tel: + 52 477 7111 948.  Images available at www.worldrallypics.com/ford