BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team finished third and fourth on Rally de España yesterday after three days of tough competition in the hills above Spain's Costa Daurada coast. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen claimed the final podium place, their ninth in 12 rallies this season, in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car while team-mates François Duval and Patrick Pivato were fourth in a similar car after an incident-free weekend on the asphalt roads of Catalonia.
The two Ford pairings held third and fourth from Friday's opening kilometre, with Duval holding the upper hand over 28-year-old Hirvonen. However, the 27-year-old Belgian, drafted into the Ford line-up for his asphalt expertise for the first time since 2004, allowed Hirvonen to move ahead on Sunday's final leg to boost his challenge for the drivers' crown in the FIA World Rally Championship. The Finn retains second in the standings, 12 points from the lead with three of the 15 rounds remaining. Reigning champion Ford continues to hold second in the manufacturers' table.
This is the fastest sealed surface rally of the championship, the smooth asphalt and flowing bends likened to a race circuit by drivers. However, yesterday's second leg contained new sections of road which were tighter and twistier than the traditional speed tests. Some parts were also slippery as drivers cut corners and dragged stones and dirt on to the road surface. Competitors tackled 18 special stages covering 353.62km in the Tarragona region, south-west of Barcelona.
Duval started today's final leg, covering six tests and 93.88km, with a 13.2sec advantage over Hirvonen. He was fastest over the opening test and increased the margin to 20.1sec by the mid-leg service at the rally base in Salou. As he eased off during the second pass over the roads, Hirvonen came to the fore and won the final three stages to head his colleague by 8.3sec at the finish.
"This was a good weekend for me and I'm happy to be back in the Ford team," said Duval. "I made no mistakes and suffered no punctures and this has given me real confidence for next weekend's rally in Corsica. This isn't my favourite asphalt event because the surface is too pure and too smooth, like driving on a motorway at times. However, I found a good set-up for my Focus, my pace was consistent and I enjoyed the tougher and more slippery roads yesterday.
Hirvonen was frustrated at being unable to find a good rhythm until yesterday afternoon and paid tribute to Duval. "This wasn't how I wanted to take a podium and I really have to thank François. He was a true team player and helped me to score an extra point. Winning the drivers' championship will be very difficult now but it isn't out of the question so I will keep trying. I finally found a good rhythm yesterday afternoon and I've learned a lot about driving on this surface this weekend.
With no pressure on the BP Ford Abu Dhabi drivers from behind, Hirvonen tested Pirelli's soft compound PZero tyre this morning to gather data for next weekend's rally. "We wanted to know how the soft tyres would work in these conditions, even though we knew it wasn't the compound we would have chosen in normal circumstances, and I hope that information will pay off in Corsica," he added.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 21st in their Focus RS WRC. They retired after the final stage of the first leg with differential problems following a spin into a ditch and restarted under SupeRally rules the next day in 42nd. "The weather made it easier for us," said Al Qassimi. "I changed my settings a lot and it was only on the last three or four stages that I was really happy and able to step up my commitment. I've learned how to drive on asphalt and have more confidence now."
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said the team delivered a strong performance after a difficult first day. "François' performance proved it was the right decision to bring him into the team. He did a great job to support Mikko in his quest to be drivers' champion. Now our attentions turn to Corsica where we feel the nature of the stages will better suit our cars and drivers," he added.
Mark Deans, Ford of Europe's motorsport director, said: "Francois came into the team to help our championship aspirations. We've greatly appreciated his efforts in fine-tuning the set-up of the Focus on asphalt and, of course, his spirit in assisting Mikko's title challenge this morning. I hope his professionalism can be rewarded further in Corsica next weekend."
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Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) led from start to finish to claim his 45th world rally victory, heading team-mate Dani Sordo by 24.9sec. Behind Hirvonen and Duval, Petter Solberg (Subaru) claimed fifth after a close fight with Urmo Aava (Citroen). Aava moved ahead with two stages remaining but crashed on the penultimate test, breaking his car's suspension. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) and Stobart driver Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) battled each other all rally, the Finn moving ahead with two stages remaining. He held off Atkinson's fightback to take sixth by just 1.1sec. Andreas Mikkelsen (Ford) claimed the final drivers' point while ninth for Stobart driver Matthew Wilson (Ford) took the final manufacturers' point.
There is no time for teams to rest as the BP Ford Abu Dhabi squad tomorrow crosses the Mediterranean to Corsica for next weekend's Rallye de France (9 - 12 October). The final all-asphalt event of the season, and round 13 of the 15-rally championship, is based in Ajaccio.