BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen maintained their perfect record of podium finishes this season when they finished second in Rally de Portugal yesterday. It was the fourth consecutive podium for the Finns and their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car and keeps them in second place in the FIA World Rally Championship after four of the 12 rounds.
The rally, returning to the series after a year's absence, was the first all-gravel event of the season and was based in the Serra do Caldeirão hills, above the Algarve holiday resort of Faro. It mixed fast, open roads with narrow, more technical sections and there were many blind crests hiding sharp turns ready to trap the unwary. Hot and dry weather left the road surface coated by loose stones, while underneath the hard bedrock posed tough challenges for Pirelli's tyres.
Hirvonen led by 15.0sec after Friday's opening leg but as a result the 28-year-old Finn was first in the start order Saturday. He faced the unwelcome task of sweeping the loose gravel from the surface, leaving a cleaner and faster line for those behind. He knew he would lose time and ended the day 26.8sec from the lead. Sunday's final leg was the shortest of the three and Hirvonen quickly accepted there was no point in risking second place in an all-out attack that was likely to prove fruitless.
Nevertheless he won two of the five speed tests Sunday, finishing 24.3sec behind Sébastien Loeb after 18 special stages covering 361.36km, all held in glorious sunshine and in front of huge crowds. It was his 19th consecutive points finish.
"It was incredibly dusty this morning," said Hirvonen. "I started the day thinking a win was possible but the dust hung in the cool air and I realised after the opening stage that in those conditions I had no chance of catching Loeb. I hoped to win here but it wasn't meant to be. I think second place was the maximum I could achieve. Eight points is good for me because many drivers scored zero.
"It's frustrating to see Loeb on top again but I'm not giving up on the championship title just yet – we are only a third of the way through the season. I go to every event hoping to win and without him I would do that! The car was excellent here and I really enjoyed the rally, although it was tough yesterday when I had to clean the road at the front," he added.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished eighth in their Focus RS WRC on the Abu Dhabi driver's debut in Portugal. It was his third consecutive points finish. "This was my best gravel rally. Friday was hard because I slid off the road and then lost time with a turbo boost problem. The team did a great job in fixing it and I stepped up my pace as the weekend continued. My times steadily improved and I'm really happy with this result," said 37-year-old Al Qassimi.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila crashed out of the lead during Friday's opening leg, their Focus RS WRC rolling almost 20 times as it plunged 150 metres down a hillside. Both escaped injury, testament to the strength of the Focus RS WRC, which was destroyed.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was full of praise for Hirvonen. "It was another terrific performance by Mikko, especially as he was put under pressure again following Jari-Matti's accident on Friday. He claimed more valuable points in the drivers' championship. Jari-Matti will be back in a rally car tomorrow for a sponsor passenger ride event and that should help him regain his confidence. I'm confident he and Miikka will go on to deliver a solid and sensible drive in Argentina," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport director Mark Deans said: "Clearly it was a mixed weekend for the team's fortunes. Jari-Matti's early exit, whilst proving the inherent strength of the Focus RS WRC, dealt our championship aspirations a blow on an event where a double podium was our target. Mikko took the fight to the world champion, securing valuable and well-earned points and we will now assess the situation and our strategy ahead of the next round in Argentina."
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Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud came out on top in their battle with Stobart team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin. Solberg's Focus RS WRC moved ahead of Wilson to claim fifth on the penultimate stage when the Briton suffered brake problems and rolled near the end of the test. He regained the track, but in doing so his car's clutch burned out and he retired just a few hundred metres from the finish. Munchi's drivers Federico Villagra and Jose Diaz finished seventh in their Focus RS WRC, despite struggling with their pace notes in the dusty conditions.