Dirt roads make the going tough for Ford challengers in Mexico


BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team endured a predictably tough opening to Rally Mexico today as dry and dirty conditions hampered their challenge on this second round of the FIA World Rally Championship.  Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are fifth in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, while team-mates and championship leaders Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are sixth in a similar car, after carrying the burden of carving a clear line through slippery loose gravel throughout the day.

Both BP Ford Abu Dhabi pairings were disadvantaged by early start positions, courtesy of their podium finishes on the opening round in Sweden last month.  It meant they were unwilling road sweepers, clearing stones from the surface to leave a clear and faster line for those lower down the order.  However, the roles will be reversed during tomorrow’s second leg and both Hirvonen and Latvala should be in a position to benefit from a better start position on the longest day of the rally.

Tens of thousands of fans packed the narrow streets of Guanajuato last night to view the spectacular start ceremony.  The city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famed for its beauty, was awash with colour, music and dancing as the world’s leading drivers crossed the start podium.

The action began in earnest this morning as drivers journeyed high into the hills north and east of León.  The bulk of the competition was based around two identical loops of three gravel speed tests.  The opening loop ended with a short sealed surface test behind the service park.  Two passes over a super special stage at the race circuit on the edge of the city, where two drivers at a time raced head-to-head, ended the action after nine stages totalling 137.24km.

The countryside stages climbed to a breathtaking 2737 metres, the thinner air at such high altitudes sapping engines of up to 30 per cent of their usual power.  After several days of hot sunshine, today was more overcast and cooler with a strong breeze.  But conditions were bone dry and the roads were covered in a fine layer of loose gravel, which was to prove such a handicap to the Ford duo.

Hirvonen was first to start after his Rally Sweden win last month and had the worst of the conditions.  Latvala was third in the start order and while conditions were slightly easier, the 24-year-old was still at a considerable disadvantage.  He ended the opening loop in fifth and admitted: “I was too careful and cautious on the opening stage.  I didn’t drive well and couldn’t find a rhythm.  My driving improved after that but I slid a lot on the loose gravel.  I hit some bumps on the third stage and they threw the car into the air.  I was worried the impact may have damaged it but everything was OK.”

He retained fifth during the afternoon loop, reaching the overnight halt 61.2sec off the lead.  “The grip was better this afternoon and I drove as fast as I could without taking risks.  However, I was still too hard on my tyres.  The car’s starter motor broke after an impact in a compression.  I was afraid of the car stalling in a stage because then I wouldn’t have been able to restart it.  I’m sure tomorrow will be better in terms of grip and I’m looking forward to that,” added Latvala.

Hirvonen was sixth on the opening stage and remained there throughout the day.  Grip levels were better in the afternoon when the stages were repeated.  However, the 29-year-old still suffered as road opener, as the different driving line taken by the lesser-powered cars in the morning covered the clean route created by the leading cars earlier.

“It was so slippery on the loose gravel this morning that I could do nothing more,” said Hirvonen.  “There was a fine layer of stones that I cleared for everyone else.  There was so much gravel that even one car lower in the start order made a big difference and it was worse than I thought.  The grip was more consistent this afternoon, but the clean route had been messed up by the later starters so I had to start all over again in developing a new line.

“I had two close escapes on the second stage this morning.  First I hit a rock in a fast right corner and then a concrete post in a left bend.  I’m amazed I didn’t puncture a tyre – it shows how strong they are.  The roles will be reversed tomorrow and I will have a good start position so I will try to make up the lost ground and catch those ahead of me,” added Hirvonen.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson admitted he was surprised Hirvonen dropped so much time.  “It’s a little strange and we’ll review everything this evening.  But both Mikko and Jari-Matti, who drove well today, will have a better start position tomorrow and I hope it will be our turn to take advantage,” he said.

News from other Ford teams

Stobart M-Sport Ford drivers Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor are seventh, 1min 09.7sec ahead of team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin.  The Norwegian lost a little time this afternoon after hitting a rock and upsetting his car’s balance.  Munchi’s Ford drivers Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc are ninth, the Argentines unhappy with the brakes and car’s handling this morning.  Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino are 10th in their Focus RS WRC on the team’s WRC debut, the Americans losing a minute when the car stopped after an impact this afternoon.

Tomorrow’s Route

The second leg is the longest, with the bulk of the action taking place over two loops of three gravel tests in the hills north and east of León.  The opening stage of each loop is the longest of the rally at 29.90km and the other two are both more than 23km.  The short sealed surface test behind the service park will again end the morning loop, while two more passes over the super special stage will close the day.  Drivers restart at 07.00 for nine stages covering 158.82km before the overnight halt at 17.41.

Leaderboard after Day 1

  1. P Solberg/P Mills   NOR  Citroen C4  1hr 23min 39.9sec
  2. S Ogier/J Ingrassia   FRA  Citroen C4  1hr 23min 54.9sec
  3. S Loeb/D Elena   FRA  Citroen C4  1hr 24min 07.4sec
  4. D Sordo/M Marti   ESP  Citroen C4  1hr 24min 20.7sec
  5. J-M Latvala/M Anttila  FIN  Ford Focus RS 1hr 24min 41.1sec
  6. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen  FIN  Ford Focus RS 1hr 25min 11.4sec
  7. H Solberg/I Minor  NOR  Ford Focus RS 1hr 25min 17.4sec
  8. M Wilson/S Martin  GBR  Ford Focus RS 1hr 26min 27.1sec
  9. F Villagra/J Perez Companc ARG  Ford Focus RS 1hr 27min 59.7sec
  10. K Block/A Gelsomino  USA  Ford Focus RS 1hr 28min 13.2sec

Stage Times

Stage 1: 1. P Solberg 14min 05.4sec; 2. Ogier + 9.8; 3. Sordo + 10.8; 4. Loeb + 14.0; 5. Latvala + 21.8; 6. Hirvonen + 22.0.

Stage 2: 1. P Solberg 13min 51.4sec; 2. Ogier + 4.6; 3. Loeb + 8.9; 4. Sordo + 10.4; 5. Latvala + 10.5; 6. H Solberg + 20.6; 7. Hirvonen + 21.2.
Overall: 1. P Solberg 27min 56.8sec; 2. Ogier + 14.4; 3. Sordo + 21.2; 4. Loeb + 22.9; 5. Latvala + 32.3; 6. Hirvonen + 43.2.

Stage 3: 1. P Solberg 11min 49.9sec; 2. Ogier + 3.0; 3. Loeb + 3.3; 4. Latvala + 6.5; 5. Sordo + 7.3; 6. Hirvonen + 10.9.
Overall: 1. P Solberg 39min 46.7sec; 2. Ogier + 17.4; 3. Loeb + 26.2; 4. Sordo + 28.5; 5. Latvala + 38.8; 6. Hirvonen + 54.1.

Stage 4: 1. Ogier 1min 16.6sec; 2. Loeb + 0.2; 3. P Solberg + 0.3; 4. Sordo + 0.3; 5= Hirvonen, H Solberg + 1.4; 7. Latvala + 1.8.
Overall: 1. P Solberg 41min 03.6sec; 2. Ogier + 17.1; 3. Loeb + 26.1; 4. Sordo + 29.1; 5. Latvala + 40.3; 6. Hirvonen + 55.2.

Stage 5: 1. P Solberg 13min 56.1sec; 2. Ogier + 2.6; 3. Loeb + 3.1; 4. Sordo + 4.2; 5. Latvala + 9.3; 6. H Solberg + 13.0; 7. Hirvonen + 13.2.
Overall: 1. P Solberg 54min 59.7sec; 2. Ogier + 19.7; 3. Loeb + 29.2; 4. Sordo + 33.3; 5. Latvala + 49.6; 6. Hirvonen + 1:08.4.

Stage 6: 1. P Solberg 13min 41.2sec; 2. Ogier + 1.0; 3. Loeb + 1.9; 4. Latvala + 5.7; 5. Sordo + 5.8; 6. H Solberg + 10.6; 7. Hirvonen + 16.7.
Overall: 1. P Solberg 1hr 08min 40.9sec; 2. Ogier + 20.7; 3. Loeb + 31.1; 4. Sordo + 39.1; 5. Latvala + 55.3; 6. Hirvonen + 1:25.1.

Stage 7: 1. Ogier 11min 38.9sec; 2. Loeb + 0.8; 3. P Solberg + 3.3; 4. Sordo + 6.3; 5. Latvala + 7.8; 6. Hirvonen + 8.6.
Overall: 1. P Solberg 1hr 20min 23.1sec; 2. Ogier + 17.4; 3. Loeb + 28.6; 4. Sordo + 42.1; 5. Latvala + 59.8; 6. Hirvonen + 1:30.4.

Stage 8: 1. Ogier 1min 37.5sec; 2. Sordo + 0.2; 3. Loeb + 0.5; 4= P Solberg, H Solberg + 0.9; 6. Villagra + 1.0; 8= Latvala, Hirvonen + 2.3.
Overall: 1. P Solberg 1hr 22min 01.5sec; 2. Ogier + 16.5; 3. Loeb + 28.2; 4. Sordo + 41.4; 5. Latvala + 1:01.2; 6. Hirvonen + 1:31.8.

Stage 9: 1. Ogier 1min 36.9sec; 2. Loeb + 0.8; 3= Sordo, Villagra + 0.9; 5. H Solberg + 1.1; 6. Hirvonen + 1.2; 7. Latvala + 1.5.
Overall: 1. P Solberg 1hr 23min 39.9sec; 2. Ogier + 15.0; 3. Loeb + 27.5; 4. Sordo + 40.8; 5. Latvala + 1:01.2; 6. Hirvonen + 1:31.5.