Ford trio on the rocks ...

after opening day setbacks in Greece

BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team made a strong start to the toughest round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Greece yesterday, only for its daylong endeavours to end in disappointment in the final kilometres.  Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila lie sixth on the Acropolis Rally of Greece in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, after leading for the first half of the opening leg.  Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are seventh in a similar Focus RS.

Latvala was second and Hirvonen overcame the disadvantage of a poor start position to hold fourth as they began the final short speed test on the northern edge of Athens.  However, suspension problems forced both drivers to nurse their cars through the 4.40km special stage, Latvala conceding more than a minute and Hirvonen dropping 50sec to slip down the order.

This seventh round of the series traditionally poses the toughest of challenges to both man and machine.  Searing temperatures, which today reached 32ºC in the shade, placed a high burden on engines and gearboxes while drivers faced even higher temperatures inside their cockpit.  But it was the rough gravel tracks that, as usual, provided the major concerns.  Rocks littered the surface and hard bedrock, which forms the basis of the roads, ensured a punishing day for the cars.

After the start ceremony at the foot of Athens' historic Acropolis Thursday night, drivers faced two identical loops of three tests north and west of the city today.  The leg ended with a short 'spectator-friendly' stage at the city's military airfield at Tatoi next to the service park, providing competitors with 109.34km of action.

Latvala made a perfect start by winning the opening special stage and the third to hold a 4.2sec lead after the opening loop.  A front left puncture on the afternoon's opening test cost 10sec and two places but the 23-year-old Finn climbed back to second on the penultimate test.  However, a rock on the final corner of that stage was to ruin Latvala's excellent performance.

"A rock was jutting out from the bedrock in a rut in the middle of the corner," he explained.  "I was doing about 150kph when I hit it and the impact damaged the rear right suspension.  I didn't see the rock until I hit it.  It was a very rough stage and the rock wasn't in my pace notes.  It was close to the stage finish so I didn't lose much time.  The trailing arm in the suspension broke and we stopped after the finish to strap it up so that we could complete the final stage.  We were unlucky because the repairs were holding until we drove over a speed bump before the start of the last stage and it broke again.

"It has been the same story for me in recent events.  I have had a good start, hit trouble and then have to fight back up the leaderboard.  I tried to look after my tyres this morning as it's important to keep them in good condition here.  I was playing with the throttle on the uphill sections to preserve them and that's something I need to work on because tomorrow will be even tougher," he said. 

As championship leader, Hirvonen was disadvantaged by being first in the start order, sweeping slippery loose stones from the surface to leave a cleaner and faster driving line for those behind.  The 27-year-old Finn quickly settled into fourth and set his sights on limiting the time loss so that he could take advantage of a better road position tomorrow from which to attack the drivers ahead. 

However, the same rock that damaged Latvala's hopes, also ruined Hirvonen's day.  "It was so rough and the damage could have happened anywhere.  Just before the finish I braked going into a corner and the front right compression strut broke.  We tried to fix it after the finish but I had to drive slowly through the final stage.  I have a better road position for tomorrow, and that's the best positive I can draw from today.  Third could still be possible, but that will be the best I can achieve," he said. 

Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr are 15th in another Focus RS.  Incredibly, they too fell foul of the same rock.  "I noticed a tyre going flat halfway through the stage but the car was still driveable.  Then about 100m from the finish there must have been a bedded rock and the impact on the rear right of the car was huge.  The trailing arm snapped instantly, I lost control of the wheel and limped over the line.  On the road section to the last stage, Michael and I had to change the tyre three times because it was rubbing on the car's bodywork and puncturing again and again.  It's a miracle we made it back, especially after doing the super special with a flat tyre," said 36-year-old Al Qassimi.

Team Round Up

Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) moved into the lead when Latvala punctured yesterday afternoon and ended with a 15.7sec advantage over team-mate Dani Sordo, having won four stages.  Sordo's only concern came on the opening stage in the afternoon with an engine overheating problem. 

Petter Solberg (Subaru) climbed into third on the final stage on the debut for the latest-version Impreza after a daylong battle with brother Henning (Ford).  The gap between the two is just 5.1sec.  Toni Gardemeister (Suzuki) stopped briefly in the second stage with a fuel pump problem while Matthew Wilson (Ford) dropped 30sec after hitting two rocks in stage three and breaking his car's propshaft. 

The day's only major retirement was Stobart driver Gigi Galli (Ford) on the second stage.  He hit a rock and the impact broke the front right track control arm in the suspension and this in turn pulled the driveshaft out of the gearbox.

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