Ford Focus duo takes double points haul in Rally Bulgaria
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished fifth and sixth respectively in Rally Bulgaria today. It was the first occasion
that Bulgaria has hosted a round of the FIA World Rally Championship and the asphalt roads in the mountains near Sofia provided a stern test for the Focus RS World Rally Car pair.
Rally Bulgaria was the first sealed surface round of the WRC since October last year. It was based in Borovets, the country's old ski resort, and the route offered 14 speed tests covering 354.10km over three days of competition. One special stage was cancelled during the second leg for safety reasons, reducing the competitive distance to 329.24km. Blistering heat was expected but drivers encountered rain, fog and cool temperatures until the thermometer finally rose to higher levels on today's last leg.
Hirvonen ended the opening day in fourth, finding increased pace during the afternoon after lowering the suspension settings on his Focus RS WRC. However, he dropped a place on the leaderboard early in the second leg after a poor tyre choice. The team's detailed weather information provided by an expert weather service in Britain suggested dry conditions for the opening test, but Pirelli's hard compound PZero tyres were totally unsuited when the roads turned out to be wet.
The 29-year-old Finn lost a minute and, with no realistic opportunity of regaining that time, he settled for a solid points finish. "I had a good feeling with the car and enjoyed the stages, which were extremely fast in places. But the times weren't as good as we hoped, so we have to keep working hard to improve. With no chance of moving up today, we tested a few things for future rallies. Today was better and I think we learned something that will help on the remaining asphalt rallies," he said.
"Fifth brings good points for the team but I hoped for more. Now I'm looking forward to my home rally in Finland later this month where I want to fight for a win," added Hirvonen.
Latvala ended the first day in fifth, just 10.3sec behind his team-mate, after stiffening his car's suspension settings midway through the leg. The 25-year-old Finn made the same tyre choice yesterday morning and also lost a minute, and a damaged power steering system in the afternoon loop cost another 30 seconds. He, too, settled for a cautious drive through the final leg.
"I tested soft compound tyres this morning as an experiment to see how they would work in these conditions," he said. "The car was unbalanced and I switched to harder tyres for the final two stages. It was a difficult weekend but I had a clear run and made no mistakes. I can take confidence from finishing after my retirement in Portugal on the last round. I was hoping for a place in the top five, so I'm a little disappointed not to achieve that.
"My driving on asphalt has improved since last year. Earlier in the season I raced in the Nürburgring 24 Hours race and that helped on the asphalt here. When I drove on a circuit with other cars around and sometimes saw them going faster, I realised I might be taking the wrong line in some corners or could exit bends more quickly. It was a good learning process," he added.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team director Malcolm Wilson admitted he was disappointed with the weekend. "We completed intensive testing during the summer and after all the hard work we hoped for better from this rally. However, I'm pleased to see that Jari-Matti has improved his pace on asphalt and that's a positive to take away from here with three more asphalt rallies to come," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "To finish with both cars in the points is always good, but it doesn't hide the fact that this was a disappointing weekend. We're not happy with the performance of the car here and we know we need to do some work with our rally partners M-Sport to improve the performance."
The double points haul in this seventh round of the series keeps the BP Ford Abu Dhabi squad in second place in the manufacturers' championship. Hirvonen and Latvala remain third and fourth in the drivers' standings with six rounds remaining.
News from other Ford teams
Stobart M-Sport Ford debutants P-G Andersson and Jonas Andersson finished seventh in a Focus RS World Rally Car after a troublefree rally. Team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin were ninth. The Ford Fiesta S2000 clinched first and second in the Group N category. Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor were 10th overall in their debut in the orange car, with Dennis Kuipers and Fred Miclotte taking second in 13th overall.
The championship returns to gravel later this month for one of the sport's classic events. Rally Finland, complete with its high speed roller coaster jumps, is based in Jyväskylä on 29 - 31 July.