Hirvonen embroiled in titanic tussle at the top in Turkey
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team's Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will start tomorrow's final day of the Rally of Turkey in the midst of a thrilling battle for victory. The Finns are third in a Ford Focus RS World
Rally Car, just 17.3sec from the lead, after an exciting second leg through the lush green countryside near Istanbul. The top four drivers in this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship are covered by just 22.4sec with 114km of competition remaining.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila crashed out of sixth place this morning in another Focus RS WRC. They were able to continue and remain in a points-scoring position for Ford in 12th.
The top six were covered by less than 30sec as competitors left the rally base in Pendik, on the eastern edge of Istanbul, this morning. They faced two identical loops of speed tests covering 145.82km near the Black Sea coastline. An already intense fight for supremacy at the top of the leaderboard was spiced up further as the route took advantage of new rules for 2010 allowing mixed surface special stages. Six of the eight tests contained both gravel and asphalt.
Hirvonen, third overnight, won the second test this morning to climb to second but returned to Pendik for the lunchtime service in third, 14.6sec from the lead. After a heavy impact on the left of the car, the team worked furiously to change the propshaft, rear differential, rear suspension and front left suspension to restore the Focus RS WRC to full health for the afternoon.
Hirvonen slid to fifth on the next stage as the leading drivers fought for every tenth of a second. However, victory on the same test as this morning promoted the 29-year-old to third, where he remained during the final two stages. A small hole behind Lehtinen's seat allowed dust to filter into the car and both driver and co-driver became caked in grit and sand as the afternoon progressed.
The mixed surfaces and rocky tracks meant drivers used various tyre changing options as they strived for the fastest strategy. Hirvonen remained tight-lipped about his choices but admitted: "It is so tight at the top that we drove flat out over big rocks. There were many in the road but the speeds were so high there was no time to react and drive around them. I thought I was going to puncture a tyre on every one but Pirelli's rubber has been amazingly strong.
"It was tough because the mixed surfaces meant the rhythm changed frequently. If I lost time anywhere it was probably on the asphalt. I had a lucky escape on the penultimate stage when I went off the road at a fifth gear corner on asphalt. The surface changed from dry to wet and I slid into the ditch, but luckily there was nothing to hit. I'm excited about tomorrow. I have a good road position and I want to go out and win. I'm really enjoying the close fight," he added.
Latvala rolled 1km after the start of this morning's opening stage. "The first corners were slippery so I was cautious. Then we came to a long, fast right bend over a crest, which was flat out in my pace notes. It tightened and the car started to slide. The rear left hit a bank and the impact pulled the front into a ditch and we rolled. The car ended on its roof and we couldn't open the doors to climb out. Spectators helped us out and pushed the car onto its wheels. My pace notes were too optimistic for the bend," he said.
Latvala continued but dropped nine minutes in the stage and more time in the remaining three tests as the turbo boost pipe was damaged in the crash. Latvala and Anttila worked alongside their mechanics to replace the pipe and fit a new cooling package to the front of the car in service, and the 25-year-old Finn climbed from 17th to 12th this afternoon.
"I concentrated on driving sensibly this afternoon. My aim is to climb into the top 10 to score drivers' points. I feel I've improved my driving on asphalt with gravel tyres. You must make a big change in style when the surface swaps from one to the other and I'm pleased with how I did that," he said.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said: "There's everything to fight for tomorrow, and that's a good indication of how competitive the championship is. Both drivers progressed well with the mixed surfaces and I'm pleased with the way Jari-Matti responded after his accident. He and Miikka also did a great job working on their car at the lunchtime service. They have built cars and trained in the workshop in England, so when we needed them to take on jobs themselves they were well-prepared."
News from other Ford teams
Munchi's Ford drivers Federico Villagra and Jose Diaz lie seventh in a Focus RS WRC, one place ahead of Stobart M-Sport Ford's Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin. Wilson lost time this morning with a spin and then punctured a tyre on the final stage, dropping a minute. Team-mates Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor punctured tyres this morning and this afternoon but produced good times after returning under SupeRally rules following yesterday's retirement. They are 27th. Monster World Rally Team's Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino posted good stage times in their Focus RS WRC after also restarting under SupeRally, but slid off the road and became stuck on the final stage.
The final leg is based closer to Pendik than the previous two days' competition. After restarting at 08.00, drivers face two identical loops of three stages north-east of the rally base covering 114.60km. They return for the finish ceremony at 16.11.