Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team’s Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila ended Friday’s first full day of Wales Rally GB little more than a second from the lead following a determined drive in treacherous conditions. Despite a persistent headache, Latvala won three speed tests this afternoon in his Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car to close to within 1.1sec of the lead.
Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen endured a day of heartbreak in their quest for a maiden drivers’ title in the FIA World Rally Championship. They led this 13th and final round of the series before damaging the radiator of their Fiesta RS WRC when they hit a tree stump and were forced to retire from the rally. After yesterday’s short appetiser in north Wales, today’s action took place in the centre of the country. Drivers tackled two loops of four special stages in Dyfi and Dyfnant Forests over roads not used in this rally since 1997. After restarting from Llandudno at the northern tip of Wales, they tackled 116.18km of gravel tracks in foggy and muddy conditions before journeying south to Cardiff for the overnight halt. Latvala started the day in third, just 3.1sec from the lead. The 26-year-old Finn climbed to second during the morning loop but reached the mid-leg service in Builth Wells 17.7sec behind Sébastien Loeb. Treatment from the team’s physiotherapist revitalised Latvala, who won three out of the four afternoon tests to close on the Frenchman with two days still remaining.“I wasn't on my best form this morning,” admitted Latvala. “I've had a headache all week which I think is coming from a nerve in my neck. I wasn’t able to relax and felt tense. I visited the physio and instantly felt better, so I was able to push and put pressure on Loeb to close the gap. I tried to take the lead to ensure the best road conditions tomorrow, but I just needed a few more kilometres.“The roads were surprisingly slippery due to the rain. Some sections were tricky but conditions weren’t too bad until the final stage of the morning which was foggy and muddy, and it was difficult to see the bends. I was lucky because I almost spun in a left corner. I had a few escapes and it was a little bit of a risky way to drive, but it worked for us,” he added.Hirvonen started in second just 0.7sec behind title rival Loeb. He struggled with visibility during the gloomy opening stage, but won the next two tests to power into the lead. However, his bid for glory ended cruelly just a handful of kilometres after the start of the morning’s last stage in Dyfnant, as he attacked in foggy and slippery conditions.A spin resulted in a tree branch piercing the radiator of his Fiesta RS WRC, causing the engine to lose water and overheat several kilometres later. Hirvonen stopped to remove the branch but lost almost four minutes and was forced to stop on the 100km liaison section to service. Despite heroic efforts from the Ford Abu Dhabi mechanics to enable Hirvonen to restart tomorrow under SupeRally regulations, the damage was too great and he retired.“I spun, which at first felt like a typically harmless Rally GB incident," said 31-year-old Hirvonen, who has won the event twice. “I had a big slide and the rear of the car hit a bank. The front also touched the bank, hitting a tree stump and puncturing the radiator. I continued for another 5km but didn't realise the engine was slowly losing water, causing big damage.“I felt comfortable driving at that pace and knew I could take more risks and push harder, but all it takes is a small slip like that to catch you out. It's a huge disappointment. The team worked so hard throughout the year. It was a fantastic effort from everyone, including Jari-Matti who supported me so much towards the end of the season. We did all we could to get into a position where we could still fight for the title and it's such a shame it ended like this,” added Hirvonen.Evgeny Novikov and Denis Giraudet lie 11th in the team’s other Fiesta RS WRC, less than a minute away from a points-scoring position. The Russian driver admitted the weather did not make life easy. “The grip levels fluctuated and the roads were slippery, with fog in some sections. It was one of the most difficult days I've had in the sport,” he explained.Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson admitted he was ‘devastated’ after seeing Hirvonen take the lead, only for his hopes of a championship win to be dashed. “It was a huge disappointment for the team, after putting such a great effort into getting back into the title fight. We tried to fix the car, but there was too much damage. In the last three rallies Jari-Matti helped Mikko significantly and we will now aim to put him onto the top step of the podium,” said Wilson.News from other Ford teamsMads Østberg / Jonas Andersson hold third for the M-Sport Stobart Ford team in their Fiesta RS WRC. Team-mates Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor are fifth following a troublefree day, while Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk are an excellent sixth in their debut in a Fiesta RS WRC. Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are ninth, the British duo not enjoying the demanding conditions. FERM Power Tools crew Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte lie 10th, despite struggling to find rhythm, while Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino are 12th. Martin Prokop / Jan Tomanek were 11th on their debut in a WRC car until they hit a bank and damaged the rear suspension in stage six. The pair will re-start under SupeRally rules tomorrow.Today’s RouteThe third day is a carbon copy of last year’s opening leg, taking in classic tests in Hafren and Myherin forests. Drivers leave Cardiff at 06.00 and tackle two identical loops of three stages, split by a service break in Builth Wells. They return to Cardiff at 19.16 after 128.06km of competition. The Hafren test which opens each loop is the longest of the rally at 32.14km.