Australia : Ford World Rally Team - Leg 1
Ford World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lead Rally Australia tonight after an extraordinary opening leg. The Finns are 26.2sec clear in their Ford Focus RS World Rally car after a day in which the treacherously
slippery gravel tracks of Western Australia took a heavy toll on their rivals.
Team-mates Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen fell foul of the conditions and dropped 11 minutes after rolling their Focus RS. They are 18th.
It is the first time that 26-year-old Hirvonen and 37-year-old Lehtinen have led a round of the FIA World Rally Championship at the end of a leg.
After two short crowd-pleasing super special stages at Perth's Gloucester Park trotting track last night, the action began in earnest this morning. Competitors tackled seven speed tests in forests south and east of the state capital before a repeat of the Gloucester Park double-header. It took the competitive distance to 124.83km, the longest leg of this 14th round of the championship. Glorious blue skies sent air temperatures soaring to 30˚C while on the ground it reached a blistering 44˚C.
The gravel roads here are unique and among the most demanding of the season. They have a hard base which is covered by millions of tiny circular bauxite stones. Not only are they extremely slippery, but the early cars to drive the fresh roads are at a considerable disadvantage as they sweep the stones clear to leave better grip for those behind.
Hirvonen was second after last night's opening and moved into the lead late this morning when Chris Atkinson retired. He fought closely with Petter Solberg and the gap between the duo never rose above 2.7sec before Hirvonen took advantage of a more dust-free run through the final country stage to open a more comfortable advantage.
"I made no mistakes and had no problems and that's why I'm leading, but it has been a strange day because I didn't set any fastest times," said Hirvonen. "Winning is a possibility but I need to find a balance between fighting for first place and finishing. There are no words to describe how slippery this gravel is. It was just like driving on ice. But there is no room for error now that Marcus has lost time and the pressure is on because I must score good points for the team.
"We were lucky in the dust on the last forest stage. It was hanging in the air and I had to stop near the finish. I came over a crest and it was like hitting a wall of dust. Tomorrow will be easier because we will not be cleaning the road but I know Petter and he will not give up. There are still two days to go but it is a good feeling to be leading," added Hirvonen.
Grönholm and Rautiainen led last night but their advantage was short-lived. Just 5km after the start of the day's opening 15.92km Murray North test, the Finns rolled their Focus RS. "I hit a stone on the inside of a second gear right bend and the impact threw the car across the road and I rolled over the bank on the opposite side," said 38-year-old Grönholm. "The car rolled once, it was slow and soft, and ended on its roof. We pushed it back onto its wheels with the help of two or three people but then it became stuck on a tree stump so we had to jack it up to get out. We were stuck for more than 10 minutes. I made a stupid mistake."
Although the Focus RS did not suffer serious mechanical damage, the accident cracked the windscreen and broke both side windows. Although the crew taped them up as best they could, it was impossible to prevent choking brown dust from infiltrating the cockpit and they had to tackle another 70km of competition before returning to service in Perth for repairs.
"It was hell inside. We had so much dust in there that I couldn't breathe or see. My eyes hurt now and I also hurt my back trying to push the car over," added Grönholm. The team changed the transmission assembly and replaced battered body panels and the Finn then posted fastest time over three of the final four stages. Having dropped to 56th, following the crash, he recovered to 18th.
"I wasn't so fast this afternoon but the others were hindered by dust. I'm an old motocross rider so I'm used to it. I'm disappointed because we had the opportunity to lead comfortably and I think it will be a few years before I forget this. A top five finish is possible and that's my aim," he added.
Competitors face another long day tomorrow. They leave Perth at 07.30 for the long journey south-east to a group of five stages in Bannister Plantation. Formerly known as Bunnings, the famous roller coaster jumps and watersplash there provide some of the season's most dramatic images.
After service in Perth, drivers repeat the same two tests east of the city that they tackled this afternoon before a final two runs over the Gloucester Park super special. They reach the overnight halt at 20.29 after nine more stages covering 120.36km.
Press release Ford World Rally Team