Japan - Ford World Rally Team - Day Two
The Ford World Rally Team maintained its firm grip of the leading positions at Rally Japan during today's hugely challenging second leg in the forests near Sapporo.
Day One pacesetters Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen retained
their lead of this 14th and penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The Finns headed teammates and fellow countrymen Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila by 15.5sec as they reached the final overnight halt of this three-day event.
After yesterday's shortened leg north-east of Sapporo, the largest city on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, today's action moved south for tests near Chitose and the coastal town of Tomokamai. In contrast to yesterday's narrow and twisty roads, today's competition was held over faster and wider gravel tracks, many of which cut up badly and became deeply rutted for the second pass this afternoon following heavy overnight rain.
Drivers tackled 10 stages covering 156.78 kilometres, eight in the countryside before two more passes over a super special stage in the spectacular ultra-modern Sapporo Dome.
Twenty-eight-year-old Hirvonen started today with a 26.2sec lead but lost a small part of that after swiping a fence with the rear of his Focus RS WRC on the opening test. He avoided problems on the remaining three stages to end the morning loop with a 16.9sec lead over Latvala.
Despite deteriorating conditions, Hirvonen won two afternoon stages to extend his advantage, before Latvala narrowed it again through the two Dome tests.
"It was quite a nerve-wracking day," he said. "The roads were much faster and it took a while for me to get used to that after the narrow, twisty stages yesterday. This afternoon there were ruts everywhere but I couldn't afford to ease my pace too much. The conditions were difficult and Jari-Matti drove quickly behind me."
"The strangest moment came this morning when I lost my rhythm after I had to slow when two deer ran across the road in front of me," Hirvonen added.
"I came to Japan looking for a victory but even if I achieve that tomorrow, it looks like that won't help my championship challenge now. Tomorrow's stages are soft but they shouldn't be as slippery, so I hope we have an easier time," Hirvonen wished.
Latvala powered to fastest time on the morning's third test and added another stage win this afternoon as the 23-year-old focused his attentions on staying ahead of third-placed Sebastien Loeb
"I succeeded in doing that," he said. "Maybe he drove carefully in the ruts but, if so, it made my life easier. I needed to drive fast because I didn't want Seb close to me, but equally I didn't want to put Mikko under pressure, so I followed Seb's split times in the stages."
"I drove cautiously through the first two stages and then stepped up my pace," added Latvala. "I wanted to find the right balance and not risk too much, before increasing my speed when I found my confidence. This afternoon I punctured a tyre on the first stage of the loop so I drove a little more cautiously because I had only one spare in the car and another puncture would have meant the end of my rally."
"In these conditions the only thing to do was follow the ruts and be brave. The tactic was to keep all four wheels in the ruts, like a train track," explained Latvala.
Ford team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on another positive day: "It was a very controlled performance from both drivers, dictating the pace from the front. Both delivered measured drives, especially in such difficult conditions on the stages."
Drivers face another nine stages during the final day's competition. After a 06:00 start from Sapporo, the route again heads south towards the cost at Tomokamai.
Competitors face two identical loops of four tests, split by a final pass through the Sapporo Dome super special stage, providing 96.43 kilometres of competition. The finish takes place in the Dome at 15:00.