|Hirvonen heads Ford challenge after tough weekend in Germany|
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished fourth in Rallye Deutschland today as the opening asphalt round of the FIA World Rally Championship season delivered a tough encounter. Their Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car headed the team's challenge as colleagues Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished 14th following a hugely frustrating weekend.
After eight loose surface rallies, the new-generation WRCs finally had the opportunity to tackle a pure asphalt event in south-west Germany. Trier, the country's oldest city, hosted the rally which proved as unpredictable as ever thanks to the vagaries of the weather and the varied characteristics of the speed tests.
Competitors tackled 19 special stages covering 359.59km over three distinctly different types of roads. Bumpy, narrow tracks among the undulating vineyards alongside the banks of the Mosel river contrasted with flowing public roads in the Saarland countryside.
But the sternest challenge was offered by the tank training tracks on the Baumholder military land. Wide asphalt contrasted with bumpy, abrasive concrete and high kerbstones, known as hinkelsteins, which line the roads to keep the tanks in position were ready to punish the unwary.
The team's choice of hard compound Michelin Pilot Sport tyres delivered an early setback when rain deluged the middle test of Friday morning's opening loop. Hirvonen dropped more than 30sec, and after hitting a wall and damaging his car's suspension in the afternoon, the 31-year-old Finn ended the leg in third. A puncture yesterday morning cost a minute, and although Hirvonen won the opening test of today's final leg among the Mosel grapes, he could not regain the podium position.
"It was a difficult weekend because so many things happened," said Hirvonen, who is third in the drivers' standings. "When everything went well I had a good pace and if we continue to work hard as a team and improve the car, then we can challenge on the remaining asphalt rounds. I'm looking forward to getting back on the gravel at the next round in Australia where I feel we can be strong."
Latvala led after Friday's opening stage, but the 26-year-old Finn also lost time in the rain before an electronics problem and two punctures dropped him to 15th. Yesterday he climbed to 10th despite a stomach upset, before puncturing a tyre after hitting a tree stump and crashing on the next bend. He retired but started today's final leg, held in torrential rain initially, under SupeRally rules.
"This was the most difficult rally that I've ever had as a factory driver in a WRC car," he said. "I encountered many problems, some of which were down to my driving, and I'm disappointed with the final outcome. On the other hand I also set some good times, winning three stages. The car felt good and we have improved on asphalt as a package. Brakes and suspension are two areas in which we can work."
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson admitted the result wasn't what he hoped for. "We came here with confidence and made a great start, but after that we had many dramas. When we were troublefree, I was pleased with the improved pace we showed against our rivals, but we have a lot of work to do. It's very competitive and everything has to be 100 per cent right to win. It's the small details that you can't afford to go wrong with at this level," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "This was the toughest rally I have experienced personally and for the team. Many of the issues were out of our control. But we need to put this weekend behind us and focus on the remaining four rounds and put the competitiveness of our car to the forefront by claiming some victories."
News from other Ford teams
M-Sport Stobart Ford crew Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor finished seventh after overcoming brake troubles while Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin were 11th in another Fiesta RS WRC. Aaron Burkart / André Kachel were 23rd but the team's other car, driven by Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson crashed into retirement this morning. Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte were 10th for the FERM Power Tools World Rally Team, having been as high as seventh before losing three minutes in Saturday's final stage with a puncture. Monster World Rally Team's Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino were 17th. The Ford Fiesta S2000 completed a clean sweep of the podium in the S-WRC support championship, headed by Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk, who finished 12th overall.
The series returns to gravel next month with a new-look Rally Australia. Coffs Harbour is the new home for the final non-European round of the season on 8 -11 September.