Ford World Rally Team driver Mikko Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen lie third after today's opening leg of Rally de Espaņa. The Finns, who lead the drivers' standings in the FIA World Rally Championship by five points in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, are on target to claim
the podium finish they require to retain the lead ahead of the final round. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are sixth in another Focus RS WRC.
This penultimate round of the 12-event series offers drivers only the second opportunity of the season to sample asphalt roads. The speed tests in the hills above the rally base of Salou, south of Barcelona, are fast and flowing and similar to a race circuit in their characteristics.
Drivers tackled two identical loops of three special stages covering 131.76km. Overnight rain cleared to leave clear skies and bright sunshine, but damp patches lingered in the shaded areas this morning.
Hirvonen accepted before the start he would face a tough task on his least-favoured surface against rivals who are asphalt experts. However, he was second on the opening test and then settled into third to return to service after the opening loop 19.1sec from the lead. He was third fastest on all the afternoon stages to consolidate his position, returning to Salou this evening 34.2sec from the lead and 25.5sec clear of fourth-placed Petter Solberg.
"I've made a better start than last year, although I had hoped to be closer to the two drivers at the front," said Hirvonen. "Much of the opening stage was damp and I drove really well but as the roads dried the cars ahead pulled away from me. I feel more confident with the Focus on asphalt this year, although there was a little understeer and it's difficult to push as hard as you would like in that situation. We'll take a look at the data and try to resolve that for tomorrow.
"If I can maintain the same time gap tomorrow then I would be happy. I know that I can't put pressure on the drivers ahead, but if I can stay close enough to them to be in a position to capitalise if anything happens, then that's where I need to be," added Hirvonen.
Latvala was unhappy with his morning's work. He completed the opening loop exactly a minute behind the leaders in sixth, but a change in set-up to his Focus RS WRC restored his confidence.
The 24-year-old Finn virtually halved the time loss during the afternoon to end the day 1min 36.7sec off the lead.
"I improved my pace and my driving as the day progressed," said Latvala. "This morning I didn't drive in the same way I did on the test last week and I seemed to have lost my feeling for asphalt. The conditions were demanding, with both wet and dry roads, and I didn't have the right feel for the changing grip. The rear brakes were locking in tight corners so we changed the rear anti-roll bar in service. I wanted the car to be soft at the rear so we fitted a softer bar.
"This afternoon I was much closer to the top times. The new anti-roll bar made a big difference to the brake issues. They weren't perfect, but 90 per cent right, and that was OK for me. The car was much easier to drive and I had better movement from it. I made some improvements to my pace notes during the day and I'm much happier tonight than I was early this morning," added Latvala.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr were 12th after the morning loop in the team's other Focus RS WRC. However they retired on the liaison section after the fourth stage. The car's exhaust manifold fractured, allowing hot gas to enter the engine compartment, which in turn caused an oil leak. It is hoped he will restart tomorrow under SupeRally rules.
Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said the day had gone to plan for his team. "Although I would prefer Mikko to be closer to the drivers ahead, the time gap is smaller than it was at the same point 12 months ago, so we've made progress. Jari-Matti has also put in a solid drive and it's very important for him to stay out of trouble here," said Wilson.
The second leg is the longest of the event and covers two identical clockwise loops of three tests northwest of Salou. The opening stage of each loop is the monster 38.27km El Priorat/La Ribera d'Ebre, which is the longest of the weekend. After leaving Salou at 08:00, competitors will tackle six stages covering 127.98km before returning for the final overnight halt at 18:26.