Latvala takes charge for Ford in Jordan's rocky deserts
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila dominated today's opening leg of the Jordan Rally to lead for virtually the entire day. The Finnish duo won three of the seven loose surface
speed tests near the shores of the Dead Sea to build a 30.2sec advantage in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car after the first of three days of competition. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lie fifth in a similar car, 42.2sec behind their colleagues.
It was an ideal start to this third round of the FIA World Rally Championship for the Ford squad. Latvala has a sizeable lead going into the longest day of the rally, in which the 24-year-old will be first in the start order. However, if the slippery gravel-covered roads hinder his pace, Hirvonen is well-placed to take advantage courtesy of fifth in the order, by which time the loose stones should be swept from the surface to provide a cleaner and faster driving line.
The 2,000-year-old Roman city of Jerash hosted a spectacular start ceremony this morning. The high-tech World Rally Cars presented an incongruous sight as they followed in the wheel tracks of chariots amid the ruined city's amphitheatres, plaza and colonnaded street. Competitors then journeyed west of the capital city of Amman to tackle seven sun-kissed gravel special stages through areas famed by stories from the Bible. They covered 95.70km before ending the day at the lowest point on earth at the Dead Sea -- 420 metres below sea level.
Apart from the opening special stage in the Rumman Forest, north of Amman, the three other tests were all repeated and crossed an arid and featureless desert landscape. The roads were treacherously slippery this morning as a covering of loose gravel made grip inconsistent at best, but after the stones were swept clear during the first pass, the roads were cleaner and faster this afternoon. Large rocks lined the tracks and considering the vast emptiness of the desert, it was ironic that just a tiny error in selecting the ideal driving line could send a car crashing into the damaging boulders.
Latvala was quickest through the opening two stages to build a 4.3sec lead. Although he was briefly edged into second, he regained top spot on the final test of the morning, which passed the site where Moses was buried overlooking the Holy Land. He extended his lead substantially on the final stage this afternoon as drivers jostled for position by tactically slowing in search of a better road position for the second leg tomorrow.
"It has been a long time since I led a rally," said Latvala. "I had an incredible feeling with the car and the set-up was perfect after my test last week, so I had great confidence. I made no changes to the car and it was one of those days where everything was ideal. Tomorrow will be demanding but the first car through the stages today didn't lose so much time, so I'm not worried by the prospect of being in that position myself. I will drive flat out and it is up to those behind to chase me.
"The team's strategy was targeted towards helping Mikko. By being first on the road, I will help sweep the gravel and hopefully he can benefit. If the roads don't clean so much, then we'll see how my lead stands up against those behind," he added.
Hirvonen spun on the opening Rumman Forest stage and was only eighth. However, he climbed to sixth after the opening loop, 28.0sec behind his team-mate. He gained a further position on the final test and Hirvonen was happy with his day's work.
"It was a short day, the shortest of the rally, but that doesn't make it any less important," he said. "With two long days still to come I don't think anyone has taken any big risks. Today was all about being in the right position at the end and I'm happy with where I am. I'm confident I have a good position from which to benefit tomorrow and I'm ready for a big fight. Jari-Matti was superb and between us we've enjoyed a good day.
"I spun halfway through the first stage and stalled the engine twice before I could restart. I was too fast entering a hairpin and the car half-spun. The roads are technical and demanding, with big rocks waiting by the side of the road if you make a mistake. In its own way, this rally is one of the biggest challenges in the sport," he added.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said: "It was a dream day. We lead the rally, we set fastest times and both cars ran faultlessly. I can't ask for any more. We devised what we believed was the right strategy ahead of the longest day tomorrow and with Jari-Matti leading and Mikko in fifth, we tried to cover all possibilities."
News from other Ford teams
Stobart M-Sport Ford drivers Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor are seventh after a smooth and troublefree day with team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin one place behind. Both are in Focus RS World Rally Cars. Munchi's Ford drivers Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc are ninth, despite minor brake issues.
The second leg covers 138.28km of action and features two passes over the marathon 41.45km stage along the banks of the Jordan River, one of the longest tests of the season. After a 07.30 restart, drivers tackle two identical loops of three stages before returning to the Dead Sea for the final overnight halt at 16.31.