Ford World Rally Team lies first and second after today’s opening leg of Rally de Portugal. Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila lead this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship in a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car by 2.6sec from the similar car of team-mates Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson.
The team won three of the four speed tests which made up the short opening day’s action in this four-day event. Solberg, who was fastest in qualifying yesterday, was quickest over the opening two special stages, while Latvala took the honours in the penultimate test.
The Fiesta RS WRC claimed a clean sweep of the fastest times as M-Sport Ford World Rally Team’s Ott Tänak and Kuldar Sikk won the final stage. Seven Fiesta RS WRCs lie inside the top 10.
Today’s action started 250km north of the Faro rally base in the capital city of Lisbon, where competitors tackled a short asphalt stage alongside Jerónimos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They then journeyed south towards the Algarve coastline for three gravel tests in darkness in the hills above Faro, completing a total of 38.85km of competition.
Solberg led after the Lisbon stage and extended his advantage over Latvala to 2.2sec following the opening night-time test. However, 26-year-old Latvala edged ahead of his Norwegian rival in the penultimate stage and stretched his margin over the final test.
Rain threatened throughout tonight’s action, and a cloudburst soaked the early sections of the final stage shortly before Latvala and Solberg started. Having chosen to start last of the priority drivers today in search of better grip on cleaner gravel tracks, the Ford duo limited the time loss to their rivals ahead, who completed the test before the rain fell.
“We didn’t expect the rain to be as strong as it was,” admitted Latvala. “When it was light it wasn’t a problem, but when it became heavier the roads turned muddy. The first 4km were slippery and a couple of times I slide wide. Luckily it became drier later on, the grip improved and I found the confidence to push again.
“I was worried about dust hanging in the air but the organisers promised there wouldn’t be a problem, and they were right. We spent a lot of time analysing our start position. It was a hard choice but our research paid off and we made the right decision to start down the order. Tomorrow I need to stay calm and be sensible and clever, because there are still 400km and three days to go,” he added.
Solberg admitted to a half spin in the rain during the final stage at a right-left combination of bends. “I only dropped about 5 sec but it was so slippery in the mud with hard compound tyres fitted to the car. A lot of drivers ahead had a dry run and it was unfortunate the rain started to fall just before we were due to start the stage,” he said.
“I feel confident and I was never pushing at the maximum. It was a good, controlled feeling. When I learned Sébastien Loeb had crashed then I was even more cautious. It removed some pressure from the team and I didn’t want to take any risks in the dark,” added Solberg.
Ford World Rally Team director Malcolm Wilson was ‘delighted’ with the evening’s work. “To hold first and second tonight was our target. It means both drivers will be behind our rivals in tomorrow’s running order and we can monitor their split times and respond accordingly. It’s the perfect situation. The positions prove we got our start order strategy correct, despite the wet roads in the last stage. We knew it was going to rain, but we didn’t know when or what the intensity would be,” he said.
News from other Ford teams
M-Sport Ford World Rally Team’s Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk hold fourth in a Fiesta RS WRC, two places and 37.6sec ahead of Adapta World Rally Team’s Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson, who punctured a front right tyre in stage three. Evgeny Novikov / Denis Giraudet are seventh in the M-Sport Ford squad’s second car, with team-mates Dennis Kuipers / Robin Buysmans in 10th. Eighth place is held by Jari Ketomaa / Mika Stenberg, but the Czech Ford National Team car of Martin Prokop / Zdenĕk Hrůza struggled with a faulty ignition coil and they are 18th.
The second leg is based around Tavira, north-east of Faro, over roads that were not used last year. Some are totally new to the rally. After restarting at 11.00, drivers tackle two identical loops of three stages covering 132.68km. The two loops are split by service at the Algarve Stadium in Faro, and drivers return there for the overnight halt at 19.05.