Corsica - Ford World Rally Team - Day Two
The Ford World Rally Team maintained its tight grip on second and third places during today's second leg of Rallye de France.
Finland's Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and teammates François Duval and Patrick Pivato enjoyed
their own private battle in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars over demanding mountain roads in Corsica. Hirvonen eventually retained second by just 4.3sec from his Belgian colleague on this 13th round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Corsica again resembled a picture postcard as cloudless skies and high temperatures ensured the Mediterranean island looked stunning as drivers tackled the sinuous asphalt speed tests near the rally base in Ajaccio.
The route took competitors north for two identical loops of three special stages covering 122.84km. The opening test of each loop climbed to almost 930 metres into the island's mountains while the remaining two stages skirted the picturesque Golfe de Sagone.
The stages were highly technical, as the twisty roads were frequently covered in sand and gravel and many surface changes made it difficult for drivers to settle into a rhythm. The combination of high temperatures and abrasive asphalt again demanded strong durability from Pirelli's PZero tyres.
Hirvonen and Duval were as closely-matched today as they had been yesterday. Duval, who started just 1.
7sec behind the 28-year-old Finn, edged ahead on the opening test only for Hirvonen to regain second on the next stage. He returned to Ajaccio for the lunchtime service with a slender 2.6sec advantage over 27-year-old Duval.
The battle continued this afternoon as Hirvonen stretched the gap to 5.6sec, only for Duval to win the final test and narrow the margin to 4.3sec.
"This morning I thought that if everything went well, then I could keep ahead of François and that's how it turned out," said Hirvonen. "I don't think either of us was driving at 110 per cent this afternoon but nothing is certain so I'll drive hard tomorrow. Second would be very important to maintain my challenge for the drivers' championship. I have to accept that I can't beat Sebastien Loeb
here, so I would be happy with second."
"The stages were tricky and I slid around and missed some braking points on the slippery gravel sections. There was more gravel on the stages and the roads were more abrasive. Tomorrow's roads are quite similar. They are very bumpy in places so I will need to be careful," he added.
Duval acknowledged that there was little to gain by the Ford drivers taking risks in an attempt to beat each other.
"I want Ford to score as many points as possible and Mikko has the advantage over me here. Second would be important for him also in the drivers' championship, so I prefer not to take risks and stay on the road. I expected to be faster than him this morning but he's very quick on asphalt this year," he stated.
"I was happy to win the last stage. I softened the suspension settings at lunchtime but it didn't really work so I made some changes before the final stage and it paid off. Tomorrow's stages are difficult so I don't intend pushing hard and taking risks. Third would be a good result for me," considered Duval.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr climbed to 11th in the team's other Focus RS, despite clipping a bridge in the final stage and damaging a wheel rim.
"There was a vibration for about 1km after that because the concrete from the bridge crumbled into the rim, but then it cleared. I wasn't 100 per cent confident with the handling so I softened the suspension for this afternoon and that was a big jump forward," said Al Qassimi.
Ford team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on another trouble-free day: "We wanted to keep the pressure on Loeb and we'll try to do the same tomorrow. There are four long stages so we can't afford to relax."
The final leg is the shortest of the rally, but offers a stern challenge. After leaving Ajaccio at 07:45, drivers face two identical loops of two long stages overlooking the picturesque Golfe d'Ajaccio, split by a return to the town for service. They face 116.26km of competition before the finish ceremony in Ajaccio at 14:48.