as Cyprus Rally breaks new ground
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team ended Friday's opening leg of the Cyprus Rally in third and fourth as tyre talk dominated the first mixed surface round in the FIA World Rally Championship since 1996. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are third in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car with team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila fourth in a similar car after a long day of competition over the island's twisty asphalt roads.
The Cyprus Rally has traditionally been one of the roughest and toughest gravel road rounds in the calendar. This season an extra twist was added by the introduction of yesterday's all-asphalt leg ahead of two days of rocky loose surface tracks high in the Troodos Mountains, which are sure to provide a stern test of man and machine. To add further intrigue, the rules demanded drivers tackled the asphalt using Pirelli's gravel specification tyres – a unique challenge which added to a sense of the unknown.
Competitors tackled two identical loops of three speed tests north of Limassol on the western edge of the mountains covering 134.20km. Like their gravel counterparts, the asphalt was extremely winding and average speeds hovered around 80kph. The roads were slippery throughout, especially in the afternoon when dirt dragged onto the surface during the morning pass created extra difficulties. Rain during the final test was a further irritant, especially after glorious sunshine graced the morning.
Hirvonen settled into third on the opening stage but admitted he was too cautious throughout the morning as he came to terms with the tyre challenge. "It was a hard morning because the grip level changed all the time," said the 28-year-old Finn. "Although the roads were dry, the surface was dusty and they were slippery and unpredictable and I wasn't totally confident. My tyres felt they were losing their edge on the last stage so I drove more cautiously, but actually they were fine at the finish. I just wasn't used to the feeling of gravel tyres on asphalt."
He resolved to attack harder in the afternoon after the team's mechanics removed the front roll bar from his Focus RS WRC and the difference was clear. Having dropped 42.0sec to the leader in the morning, Hirvonen ceded only 18.2sec this afternoon to leave the margin at 60.2sec as the event switches to his more-favoured gravel surface tomorrow.
"My driving was much better. I got used to the conditions and the tyres but it was harder to find a rhythm on such twisty roads than I thought it would be. Tomorrow's stages are very rocky in places so I'm glad there is only one pass over each test. I hope it doesn't rain tonight. Third in the start order tomorrow in the dry will give me an advantage over the two drivers ahead who will have to sweep the loose gravel clear. If it rains then the advantage will be lost," he added.
Team-mate Latvala held fourth throughout the day, ending 8.1sec behind Hirvonen. "The afternoon was better than the morning and my tyre strategy worked well after lunch," he said. "Using gravel tyres was fine but I needed time to learn how to use them on this surface. I was too aggressive on the opening stage but once I understood what I needed to do, then things improved and the experience was better than I expected it to be.
"There was more grip on the abrasive sections but the smooth asphalt wasn't so good. It was frustrating to try so hard and still lose time but I didn't lose as much as I feared. I was realistic about how I would perform on asphalt and I'm looking forward to getting onto gravel tomorrow for the first time this season," added Latvala.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr lie 11th in the team's third Focus RS WRC. "It was an interesting day!" said Al Qassimi. "I realised at lunchtime that I could drive more quickly and I was pleased with my times generally, although conditions were even more slippery in the rain this afternoon. Tomorrow is a whole different rally. It's a different surface, a different set-up and a different way of driving. There is no room to cut corners, the stages are technical and it will be hard for both cars and drivers."
News from other Ford teams
Stobart drivers Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin are eighth, despite brake troubles late morning and again in the afternoon. Argentines Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc are 10th on the Munchi's Ford team's 2009 debut. Stobart's Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud retired en route to the opening stage after a collision with a non-competing vehicle. Nobody was injured in the accident but the cooling system on Solberg's car was damaged and could not be repaired.