to spearhead Ford's challenge in Corsica
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team made a strong start to the Rallye de France to hold second and third positions after yesterday's sun-kissed opening leg in Corsica.
Finland's Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lie second in a Ford Focus RS World Rally car with team-mates François Duval and Patrick Pivato third in a similar car, just 1.7sec behind after a fast and troublefree day through classic speed tests on the Mediterranean island.
Corsica is known as the Ile de Beauté – the island of beauty – and it provided a stunning backdrop to this 13th round of the FIA World Rally Championship. After lFriday night's start ceremony in the capital, Ajaccio, the action began in earnest for the 71 starters yesterday with two identical loops of three asphalt stages south of the town covering 119.92km. Cloudless skies and air temperatures topping 24ºC in the shade offered perfect conditions for drivers and spectators alike.
Unlike the smooth and flowing special stages encountered in Spain a week ago, the Corsican tests are bumpy, narrow and incredibly twisty and there is barely a straight worthy of the name. A combination of the often broken, and therefore abrasive, road surface and high surface temperatures demanded strong durability from Pirelli's hard compound PZero tyres fitted to both Focus RS cars.
The two Ford drivers were equally-matched throughout the day, the gap between the two never more than 3.3sec. Hirvonen completed the morning loop, which wound around the Golfe de Valinco on the west coast before climbing to almost 800 metres in the mountains near the village of Aullene, in second place, just 2.2sec ahead of his Belgian colleague. Two second fastest times this afternoon increased that marginally before 27-year-old Duval narrowed the gap with second on the last test.
"I'm feeling much better at the end of the first day here than I did in Spain last week, but the gap to Sébastien Loeb is 32sec, which is still too big for my liking," said Hirvonen. "He was faster than me on every stage and if he maintains that pace, then I can't beat him. I can't push any harder without taking massive risks. At the moment I'm driving safely and at a comfortable speed but if I push too hard then the car starts to understeer.
"I can't relax because François is close behind and I need to concentrate on the fight with him. He is a good driver on asphalt, so if I can stay ahead of him tomorrow I would be happy. Tomorrow will be interesting because the roads are rough and bumpy and mistakes could be punished with a puncture or worse," he added.
Duval, eighth in the start order, this morning encountered roads made dirty by the passage of the cars in front. However, he set second fastest time on the final stage of the loop, a feat he repeated this afternoon. "I expected more from today. I wanted to be second tonight, but third isn't too bad. This is a difficult rally and I didn't feel that the grip was 100 per cent perfect throughout the day," said Duval, who stiffened the spring settings on his car's suspension at the lunchtime service.
"It was especially difficult this morning because the roads were dirty and that's why I lost time in the first stage. However, conditions were the same for everyone this afternoon. The car understeered a little but maybe that's normal when the roads are dirty. I will need to push hard tomorrow. The gap to Mikko isn't so big so second place is possible," he added.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr lie 15th in the team's other Focus RS WRC on Al Qassimi's debut in Corsica. "I'm finding the rally difficult. I can't find the pace I need and I have to learn so much more about driving here before I can feel confident. I have more speed in me but I'm still trying to find my limit and twice I slid into the bushes this afternoon," said Al Qassimi.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was encouraged by the team's performance. "We've made a big step forward since Spain and our drivers are happier here in these stages than they were last week. We need maximum points and both drivers will try to keep the pressure on Loeb tomorrow," he said.
Team Round Up
Championship leader Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) was fastest on all six stages to build a 32.3sec advantage over Hirvonen.
Behind the Focus RS cars, there was a fierce three-car battle for fourth. Stobart driver Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) and Petter Solberg (Subaru) headed the trio twice each but it was the Norwegian who ended the day 1.2sec ahead of Latvala, with Chris Atkinson (Subaru) a further 2.7sec behind.
Just 10sec covered the next six places on the leaderboard. Dani Sordo (Citroen) retired from second on the third stage when he crashed into a rock embedded in an earth bank.
Urmo Aava broke his car's front left damper on the first stage. As well as losing time in the next two tests, he incurred a 60sec penalty as he battled to make repairs, but still lies 10th.
Stobart driver Matthew Wilson (Ford) crashed into a tree on stage three, losing 30sec while team-mate Henning Solberg (Ford) punctured on the final stage and dropped four minutes when the car fell off the jack as the crew changed the tyre.