Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team ended today’s demanding opening leg of Rally de España in second and third places. Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila hold second in a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car, while team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lie 23.6sec behind their fellow Finns in a similar car on the final step of the podium.
Hanging dust created severe visibility problems in the still morning air, but Latvala’s pace carried him into the lead of this 12th and penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship this afternoon. He remained on top until the dust returned for the final speed test in calm conditions and darkness, when a spin in poor visibility cost 45sec and dropped the 26-year-old Finn to second.
After last night’s start ceremony on the seafront in the holiday resort of Salou, south of Barcelona, the action began in earnest this morning. Competitors journeyed west for two identical loops of three special stages covering 160.36km, during a marathon day comprising more than 750km and 16 hours. The roads were predominantly gravel with several short asphalt sections mixed in.
Rain was forecast in the hills where the tests were based, but while the Salou service park was drenched by afternoon downpours, the stages remained clear and bright. Dust clouds hanging in the air presented problems for all but the first crew in the start order, despite three minute intervals between drivers. When the same tests were repeated this afternoon, organisers increased the interval to four minutes in a bid to alleviate the issue.
Latvala settled into second in the opening stage behind Sébastien Loeb, first in the start order and beneficiary of a clear run. As the breeze picked up and conditions improved, Latvala reduced the margin between the duo to just 5.3sec as cars returned to Salou for service.
Victory in the afternoon’s opening stage carried him into the lead and fastest time in the following test widened his advantage to 16.0sec. However, the final stage spin, allied to a front right puncture when he hit rocks in the middle of the road, meant Latvala had to settle for second, 30.6sec from the lead.
“It was cold and still this morning and the dust hung in the air,” he said. “I tried to balance bravery with caution but I had a few close escapes. Conditions were bad again tonight and it was like driving into a wall of dust in places. I wanted to build a lead ahead of the asphalt stages over the next two days but I made a mistake.
“I was unsure where I was because the visibility was so bad, and I was driving too hard for those conditions. I entered a right corner too fast and spun. I didn’t lose much time with the spin but I had to wait for a long time while the dust cleared so I could work out where the road was. A little further into the stage I hit some rocks and punctured a tyre, but it didn’t cost much time,” he added.
Hirvonen, joint leader of the drivers’ championship, hit trouble in the opening stage dust. “I went off the road at a double right, fifth gear corner. The first part was OK, but in the second bend there was a wall of dust and I went straight on. I was lucky there were no rocks or trees to hit. I didn’t expect as much dust in the air and even with three minute gaps, conditions were bad,” he explained.
The 31-year-old Finn ended the morning in fourth and admitted: “I was too cautious. I tried to take risks but I couldn’t see enough to do that and made a mistake. That made me even more cautious.”
Hirvonen posted top three times on all three afternoon stages to climb to third on the leaderboard. “Driving in the dark and dust on gravel roads was incredibly difficult. The first driver into the stage had a big advantage, but there’s nothing I could do about that. My position is OK and tomorrow I want to find a good rhythm and keep pushing hard. Dry conditions won’t be an issue, but if it’s wet then choosing the right tyres and ensuring maximum grip will be key,” he added.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr are 16th in the team’s other Fiesta RS WRC. The Abu Dhabi driver dropped time after spinning into a tree on the final stage this morning, before changing his car’s set-up at the mid-leg service to try to improve his rhythm.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said his drivers were in a strong position. “It was an action-packed day and Jari-Matti was the fastest driver in the stages. It looked as though he would lead tonight until his final stage spin, but given the pace he displayed, it’s not over yet. It was vital for Mikko to finish in a good position and all is still to play for over the next two days,” he said.
The attention switched to the service park tonight as the team had 75 minutes to modify the Fiesta RS WRCs from gravel specification to asphalt trim, ahead of the final two days on sealed surface roads.
News from other Ford teams
Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson are seventh for the M-Sport Stobart Ford team despite tackling the day with an asphalt-specification differential in their Fiesta RS WRC. Team-mates Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor are one place behind, Solberg driving several stages with an intercom problem which meant he could not hear Minor’s pace notes clearly. Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are 10th in the team’s other car, having made changes to the engine mapping and gearbox during the mid-leg service. FERM Power Tools duo Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte are 13th after a troublefree day. Munchi’s Ford’s Federico Villagra / Diego Curletto are 22nd, the Argentines having only tackled part of the recce due to flight delays caused by volcanic ash clouds over south America. Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino retired their Fiesta RS WRC in the opening stage with a broken steering arm after hitting a rock.
Tomorrow’s all-asphalt leg offers an easier day’s work for drivers in comparison to today. They depart Salou at 08.30 to tackle two identical loops of three stages covering 143.54km, before returning to the town for the final overnight halt. However, each loop opens with the daunting 45.97km El Priorat test, the second longest of the season.
Leaderboard after Day 1
1. S Loeb/D Elena
2. J-M Latvala/M Anttila
3. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen
4 S Ogier/J Ingrassia
5. D Sordo/C Del Barrio
6. K Meeke/P Nagle
7. M Østberg/J Andersson
8. H Solberg/I Minor
9. E Novikov/D Giraudet
10 M Wilson/S Martin