BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen won the Serbia Rally yesterday by more than seven minutes after setting fastest time on all 17 speed tests in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. The Finns used the two-day asphalt event, which took place during the summer break in the FIA World Rally Championship, as a test session before the WRC season restarts in Bulgaria next month.
The rally, based in Belgrade, was a round of the FIA European Rally Championship Regional Cup (East), as well as the national championships in Serbia and Bulgaria. Drivers were due to tackle 18 special stages covering 229.14km, but one test was cancelled during Saturday’s opening leg due to extreme weather conditions.
Torrential rain and hailstorms affected the opening day, and 29-year-old Hirvonen faced a near-impossible task in matching the set-up of the Focus RS WRC and his tyre choice to the constantly changing conditions. The weather was dry yesterday morning, before rain returned for the afternoon’s final group of stages. However, the Ford duo took the treacherous conditions in their stride to win by 7min 39.0sec.
The team now moves to southern Spain for a four-day asphalt test which begins on Sunday. Hirvonen will be joined there by team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila to finalise their preparations for Rally Bulgaria, round seven of the WRC. It is the first of four asphalt rallies during the second half of the WRC season, with sealed surface events also held in Germany, France and Spain.
“It’s more than eight months since the WRC’s last asphalt round, so Serbia was all about shaking off the rust and finding a good feeling behind the wheel of the Focus RS WRC on that surface,” said Hirvonen. “The weather during the first leg was awful and it was impossible to predict what set-up and tyres would be the right choice for the changing conditions. But that can happen in the WRC too, so it was good experience to learn how to drive like this.
“Yesterday morning was drier and we were able to carry out more orthodox testing work. We tried a few modifications to the set-up of the car, which we will test further in Spain. The rally was the perfect way to warm-up for the forthcoming asphalt events in the WRC. We received a great welcome from the fans in Serbia, who stood out in dreadful weather to watch the event, and I hope we provided them with a good show,” he added.
Hirvonen is today working in a road car with former European FIA Endurance Touring Car champion Rob Wilson at Bruntingthorpe proving ground in England. Wilson is an expert asphalt driving coach and Hirvonen has trained with him on several previous occasions.