BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team controlled yesterday's opening leg of the Rally of Turkey with a masterful blend of speed and strategy. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila held the top two positions in Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars throughout a tough day's driving in the south of the country. Both then deliberately eased their pace in the final few metres to drop down the leaderboard to earn a more favourable start position Saturday.
Hirvonen, who led for most of the day, dropped to fifth while Latvala lies third. Each will be handed those positions in the start order today and so avoid the huge disadvantage of being first and second over roads covered by slippery loose gravel. They will benefit from the cleaning process of the cars ahead, who will sweep the stones from the surface to leave a clearer and faster line from which Hirvonen and Latvala hope to benefit.
This eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship roared into action in Antalya Thursday night with a show speed test in the grounds of the university. The competition began for real yesterday when drivers tackled eight more special stages on demanding gravel roads in the Anatolian mountains, which tower above the rally base in the holiday resort of Kemer, on the edge of the Mediterranean. They faced 154.90km of competition in total, and while conditions in the mountains were cooler, shade temperatures in Kemer touched a roasting 32ºC.
Hirvonen was second in the start order and built a 6.9sec lead over Latvala on the opening loop of three stages. Although Latvala moved ahead briefly during the second loop, Hirvonen moved back into top spot and the 27-year-old led his colleague by 2.0sec going into the final 22.40km test. As soon as championship rival Sébastien Loeb, running first in the start order, reached the finish, the team advised Hirvonen of the time in which he needed to complete the stage so as to drop behind the Frenchman on the leaderboard.
The Finn slowed just before the finish line and watched almost 20sec pass before completing the test. Four drivers moved ahead of him, to give Hirvonen a perfect position from which to attack today.
"It's a risk to do this because we haven't won anything yet and there are only two stages for Loeb to clean , but these are better circumstances for me than being first on the road," he said.
"If I had been leading tomorrow, I don't think I would have been able to keep him behind me because my 14sec advantage wouldn't have been enough. The plan now is to attack hard and build a big enough lead to take into the final day. I'm sure Loeb will fight hard, but I feel confident.
"He drove well in his start position and there's a lot for me to learn from him today. Even though my driving style is more sideways than his, there was still a cleaner line for me to follow. I was able to both drive quickly and control the situation when I needed to tonight. My only problem was dust in the car. About 7km from the end of the third stage there was a large impact under the car and it quickly filled with dust. The impact made a hole under the floor behind Jarmo's seat and it was hard to see. We needed to block it up because it was like a sandstorm!"
After lying fourth overnight, Latvala punctured a front right tyre on the opening stage to lose 30sec and slip to 14th. However, he set a stunning fastest time in the next Myra test, more than 15sec quicker than his closest rival, to climb to third and amazingly took second on the next stage. "I hit a sharp loose rock about 12km after the start and the tyre went down immediately," said Latvala. "There are many loose rocks and it's important to leave a safety margin in the bends, but I slid wide coming over a crest into a right corner and clipped the rock," he explained.
Latvala blitzed the Myra stage for a second time this afternoon to take the lead but another front right puncture in the following test cost 15sec and allowed Hirvonen back in front. The 23-year-old Finn copied Hirvonen's tactics on the final stage to drop from second to third, just 1.1sec behind Loeb. "The team strategy was to not be first in the order tomorrow. It's not easy there in these conditions, I don't like it and I didn't want to be there. You need experience to perform that role well and I don't have that. The plan was to be in front of Mikko and I feel very satisfied tonight," he said.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on a successful opening day. "It was a superb performance from the team. Both drivers drove brilliantly to enable us to put a strategy into place which they executed to perfection. We now have a great start position for both drivers," he said.
Team round Up
Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) set two fastest times en route to an unwanted lead, just 1.0sec ahead of Henning Solberg (Ford).
Behind Latvala is Stobart driver Gigi Galli (Ford), the Italian also slowing on the final stage to gain a better position. He won three stages.
Petter Solberg (Subaru) holds sixth despite broken front right suspension in the afternoon. Dani Sordo (Citroen) was fifth until a rear left puncture and suspension damage on stage seven cost nearly a minute and he is eighth.
Urmo Aava (Citroen) was fastest on the's opening stage but retired after damaging his car's suspension on the next test while Chris Atkinson (Subaru) retired from ninth during the afternoon with broken front suspension.