2009 Rally Finland Winners - Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen strengthened their grip on the lead of Rally Finland during the first day. The Finns won six of the nine speed tests in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to stretch their advantage to 32.0sec with just one day remaining of this ninth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila climbed to third, despite a stomach upset which left Latvala drained of energy.
This second day was one of the longest and most demanding of the season. Drivers spent more than 14 hours behind the wheel and the 166.87km of special stages represented almost half the rally's competitive distance. Blending some of the sport's most famous roads with brand new tests, the route included narrow and tight sections with the traditional big, wide, roller-coaster roads which make this rally one of the sport's classic events.
Heavy rain in the early morning softened the road surface and provided excellent grip for Hirvonen and Latvala from their Pirelli Scorpion tyres. Conditions changed rapidly as the clouds cleared to leave a warm and sunny afternoon and the mud and standing water of the morning disappeared.
Hirvonen won all three early morning stages to extend his overnight lead from 3.3sec to 10.9sec. He also claimed the next two tests, more than doubling his lead to 28.0sec as closest rival Sébastien Loeb hit a pot hole and damaged the front right tyre. With the pressure reduced, Hirvonen adopted a more cautious pace during the final group of stages, but added another stage win to his tally.
"I thought, and hoped, it would rain this morning. It made the roads softer and improved the grip so it wasn't as slippery as yesterday. Loeb's puncture took the pressure off a little, but the lead wasn't enough for me to relax, especially with the longest stage of the rally as the day's final test. I've been pushing hard but always felt under control. I felt relaxed before the rally started and that has helped me to handle the pressure during the event.
"I've been really pleased with the set-up of the car. It's handled superbly and I felt so confident this morning on the wet roads with great grip. We have a good lead so there's no need to go flat out tomorrow if I don't feel comfortable, I don't have to take risks," added 29-year-old Hirvonen, who lives in the rally base of Jyväskylä and has received superb support during the day from his home town fans.
Latvala struggled to maintain the required pace this morning because of his illness. His health improved gradually as the day went on, a win in the middle group of tests providing the perfect medicine. He moved into third, ahead of Dani Sordo, on the final stage of that loop and two more victories this afternoon enabled the 24-year-old Finn to open a 10.5sec lead over the Spaniard. It also ensured that Hirvonen and Latvala won all nine stages today between them.
"It was the most difficult day of my WRC career," explained Latvala. "I started feeling ill about an hour before I got up. It felt like a fever and I didn't eat anything this morning so I was quite weak. It was hard driving like that and I felt so sick that my only goal was not to lose too much time. I saw the doctor in service after the first three stages and he gave me some medicine. I quickly started to feel better and improved with every stage.
"I would be so happy if I could finish on the podium tomorrow. For the last three years I have wanted too much from this rally and I know what I did wrong. It's vital to complete all the stages to gain the experience that allows you to challenge for victory here, and Mikko is showing the benefits of having done that. Tomorrow I need to find a good balance. Sordo will attack so I have to be prepared, but not take risks," he added.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr are 10th in the team's other Focus RS WRC, despite a close escape on the final stage when their car bounced out of a ditch. "I am pleased with how I performed yesterday and have gained the extra confidence to push harder during today's stages. Our results during day one mean I can push myself to lift my pace. So far we have been faster in the stages than we were last year, and I definitely have more to give," said Al Qassimi.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson described the performances of Hirvonen and Latvala as 'superb'. "They drove faultlessly at the desired pace to give the team the perfect position going into the final day tomorrow," he said.
News from other Ford teams
Munchi's Ford drivers Matti Rantanen and Mikko Lukka retained fifth after a troublefree day in their Focus RS WRC, while team-mates Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc climbed to 11th. Stobart VK M-Sport Ford's Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin moved up to eighth, despite dropping 15sec this morning when they pulled over to restart their Focus RS WRC after the ignition switch was knocked off on landing over a big jump. Team-mates Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud moved ahead of Rantanen into fifth on the opening stage but on the next test Solberg damaged the front suspension at a hairpin bend, resulting in the driveshaft coming loose and leaving the car with no drive. He retired but will restart tomorrow under SupeRally rules.