Hirvonen makes his mark as WRC title duel blasts off in Wales
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen were quick to make their mark as the long-awaited battle for the drivers’ title in the FIA World Rally Championship began yesterday afternoon. The Finns were fastest through Wales Rally GB’s opening forest speed test in their Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car and ended the short opening day just 0.7sec from the lead.Muddy gravel tracks through the Welsh forests comprise almost all the competitive distance in this 13th and final round of the series. After two short curtain-raising tests on asphalt, Hirvonen wasted no time in displaying his intentions for the weekend by speeding through the gloomy and slippery Clocaenog special stage in north Wales 2.3sec faster than title rival Sébastien Loeb.“It’s a shame we have to stop for the day and go to bed now. I’m ready for the fight,” said 31-year-old Hirvonen, who knows he must drive flat out for the next three days in pursuit of the victory that could deliver his maiden world title.There were just 25.25km of competition today. Two passes over the slippery 4.74km Great Orme test around the headland in Llandudno, flanked by steep rock faces on one side of the road and sheer drops into the sea on the other, preceded the opening forest foray.A cautious drive around Great Orme left Hirvonen in third before he upped his pace in Clocaenog. “Everything went to plan. I drove cautiously on the asphalt so as not to risk any mistakes and then raised the speed in the forest. I had a good rhythm but it was surprisingly tricky in the fading light,” explained Hirvonen.Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila were fastest in the opening Great Orme stage and continued to lead the rally after the second pass. The 26-year-old Finn was third in Clocaenog to end the day 3.1sec from the lead. “Some places in the forest were very slippery. I didn’t make any big mistakes but I wasn’t totally happy with my driving and I’d like to improve tomorrow,” he said.Evgeny Novikov and Denis Giraudet, making their debut for the team in place of the unavailable Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr, are 14th in their Fiesta RS WRC. “The forest was difficult because it was foggy in some of the fast sections. The fog was patchy and I lost some time. It was a tough way to start the rally, but tomorrow I want to push and climb the order,” said the 21-year-old Russian driver. News from other Ford teamsM-Sport Stobart Ford drivers Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson lie seventh in their Fiesta RS WRC, despite the Norwegian believing his engine lacked power. Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk enjoyed a superb World Rally Car debut to hold eighth, ahead of M-Sport Stobart’s Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin, who were delayed in the final stage when a driving light broke free from its mountings and shone into their eyes. Team-mates Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor are 10th, two places ahead of Fiesta RS WRC debutants Martin Prokop / Jan Tomanek. FERM Power Tools Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte are 13th with Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino in 16th. Friday's RouteThe second day takes competitors to classic stages in Dyfi and Dyfnant Forests that were last used in the rally in 1997. After leaving Llandudno at 05.30, competitors journey south to tackle a double loop of four stages covering 116.18km, before the long journey to Cardiff where they arrive for the overnight halt at 20.57. Leaderboard after Day 11. S Loeb/D Elena FRA Citroen DS3 14min 38.0sec2. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Fiesta RS 14min 38.7sec3. J-M Latvala/M Anttila FIN Ford Fiesta RS 14min 41.1sec 4. P Solberg/C Patterson NOR Citroen DS3 14min 49.9sec5. K Meeke/P Nagle GBR Mini John Cooper 14min 56.7sec6. D Sordo/C Del Barrio ESP Mini John Cooper 15min 05.3sec7. M Østberg/J Andersson NOR Ford Fiesta RS 15min 05.8sec8. O Tänak/K Sikk EST Ford Fiesta RS 15min 08.6sec9. M Wilson/S Martin GBR Ford Fiesta RS 15min 14.5sec 10 H Solberg/I Minor NOR Ford Fiesta RS 15min 15.8secStage TimesStage 1: 1. Latvala 2min 39.3sec; 2. Loeb + 1.9; 3. Hirvonen + 2.3; 4. P Solberg + 3.6; 5. Meeke + 4.2; 6. Sordo + 5.1; 8. Novikov + 8.4. Stage 2: 1. Loeb 2min 40.4sec; 2. Latvala + 1.0; 3. P Solberg + 2.4; 4. Hirvonen + 2.6; 5. Sordo + 3.8; 6. Meeke + 4.6; 7. Novikov + 4.7. Overall: 1. Latvala 5min 20.7sec; 2. Loeb + 0.9; 3. Hirvonen + 3.9; 4. P Solberg + 5.0; 5. Meeke + 7.8; 6. Sordo + 7.9; 7. Novikov + 12.1.Stage 3: 1. Hirvonen 9min 14.1sec; 2. Loeb + 2.3; 3. Latvala + 6.3; 4. P Solberg + 10.1; 5. Meeke + 14.1; 6. Tänak + 16.4; 14. Novikov + 48.3. Overall: 1. Loeb 14min 38.0sec; 2. Hirvonen + 0.7; 3. Latvala + 3.1; 4. P Solberg + 11.9; 5. Meeke + 18.7; 6. Sordo + 27.3; 14. Novikov + 57.2.