Ford maintains world series lead after gruelling Rally Argentina
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team retained its lead in the FIA World Rally Championship after a punishing fourth round in Argentina this weekend. Resilient performances from Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen
and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila in Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars earned the squad a solid points score on the rain-hit Rally Argentina. The double world champions now lead the manufacturers' standings by three points.
Hirvonen and Lehtinen staged a tremendous fightback after suspension problems on the opening day to finish fifth, while fellow Finns Latvala and Anttila recovered from a first day roll and a broken starter motor yesterday to finish 15th. The double points haul was far more than had looked possible midway through yesterday's second leg as rocky roads and treacherous conditions sparked a high rate of attrition among the leading drivers.
Heavy rain before and during the event meant the sandy gravel roads near Carlos Paz in Cordoba province were muddy and rutted. As the roads became softer, rocks that had not been visible during the recce became exposed, causing problems for many. Despite the rain, an estimated 1.5 million people flocked into the pampas and the mountains to watch the three-day event, which was fought out over 21 speed tests covering 347.91km.
Hirvonen was a comfortable leader during the first morning until he hit a rock, breaking a track control arm in the front suspension and he was sidelined for the day. The 27-year-old Finn restarted yesterday in 25th and avoided the carnage affecting those around him to power back to sixth. He took no risks on today's final leg, the bulk of which was based amid the lunar-like landscape of the Traslasierra mountains and contained two of the rockiest and toughest speed tests of the season. He gained one more position and leaves south America second in the drivers' standings, five points behind the leader.
"After Friday's problems, I never thought I could climb this high," said Hirvonen. "I'm surprised to score points and luckily Loeb isn't so far ahead in the championship. He's only five points in front and I thought it would be nine, so that's some comfort. But I'm still disappointed because I made such a good start to lead and I could have won, but that's life. I found more speed than I had on the last round in Mexico but today I drove carefully because conditions were slippery and foggy."
Latvala dropped nine minutes with a roll on the opening morning, but recovered to eighth until an impact with a rock yesterday morning shattered his car's starter motor and he exceeded the permitted time limit. He restarted this morning in 21st and won two of the three special stages to climb to 15th, which was good enough for two points in the manufacturers' championship. The 22-year-old is now fourth in the drivers' standings.
"My performance was disappointing but I think these were the most difficult conditions I've encountered," he said. "I've had to adapt to different ways of driving to match the conditions. I'm surprised to score points for the team because yesterday I thought we had lost everything and wasn't motivated, but my confidence came back this morning. One thing I learned from yesterday was that I need to check the engine after an impact, even when everything seems OK. I've also gained good experience of Pirelli's tyres in wet and muddy conditions which will be good for future events."
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on an event that he described 'as the worst for the team since the China Rally in 1999'. "But our team spirit shone through after a tough opening day, we recovered well and we still lead the championship. We salvaged good points from a tricky situation and that was far better than it looked earlier in the rally," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport director Mark Deans said: "This proved one of the toughest rallies in recent years. We had our share of problems but the Focus RS proved strong enough and fast enough to fight back and score the points which keeps us at the head of the championship table."
News from our Rivals Sebastien Loeb
(Citroen) secured his fourth consecutive Rally Argentina victory, crossing the finish with a 2min 33.2sec advantage. Petter Solberg (Subaru) was on course for second but the Norwegian stopped on the opening stage with electrical problems. Team-mate Chris Atkinson benefited to take his second consecutive runners-up position ahead of Dani Sordo (Citroen). Privateer Conrad Rautenbach (Citroen) took a career-best fourth with Munchi's Federico Villagra (Ford) claiming his best WRC result in sixth. The problems continued to pile up for the leading drivers. Stobart's Matthew Wilson and Henning Solberg (both Ford) each stopped with broken front suspension while Toni Gardemeister (Suzuki) suffered his third retirement of the weekend with broken power steering.
The championship's third consecutive event outside Europe takes teams to Jordan next month for the first time. The all-gravel Jordan Rally is based at the Dead Sea on 24 - 27 April.