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MEXICO - Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team claimed a double podium in Rally Mexico to extend its lead in both the manufacturers' and drivers' standings in the FIA World Rally Championship. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished second in the gravel debut of the new Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car, 45.5sec ahead of team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila.
The result meant Ford Abu Dhabi extended its lead in the manufacturers' series to 26 points after the second round of the 13 event series. Hirvonen, winner of the opening round in Sweden last month, stretched his lead in the drivers' championship to nine points. He increased his Mexican tally after taking maximum bonus points by winning the final Power Stage. Latvala is third in the standings.
The opening dirt event of the season was punishing. Rocky roads in the Sierra de Lobos mountains near León, 400km north-west of Mexico City, combined with temperatures of 33ºC to take a heavy toll on competitors. Few drivers escaped technical problems, but the Fiesta RS WRCs of Hirvonen and Latvala completed the four-day rally unscathed and a total of three punctures were their only troubles.
Competitors tackled 22 speed tests covering 364.97km over four days. The challenge was made even tougher by the altitude. The roads climbed to more than 2700 metres, and the thinner air deprived cars of up to 20 per cent of their normal power, requiring a different driving approach.
Hirvonen had the first leg disadvantage of opening the roads, sweeping a deep carpet of loose gravel from the tracks. It left a cleaner and faster line for those behind and he ended the day in third. The 30-year-old Finn consolidated his position on day two and climbed to second on the final leg when SébastienOgier crashed out of the lead.
"It's a great result from the championship perspective, especially considering the disadvantage of our road position on Friday," he said. "After my difficulties last season, I feel I've rediscovered my consistency and that's so important in mounting a title challenge. I knew the roads used in the Power Stage well and those bonus points are a big boost.
"I didn't have the opportunity to fully test some of the parts on the Fiesta before this rally. So I'm looking forward to doing that when we test in Portugal before our next rally there. We still have work to do in improving the car, but it's a hugely encouraging start to the season," he added.
Latvala recovered well to take the final step on the podium after losing two minutes when he stopped to change a rear left puncture on the opening day. The time loss dropped him to ninth but he climbed back to fourth at the end of the leg. A second puncture on Saturday proved less costly and the 25-year-old Finn had settled for fourth until he was promoted to third, yesterday.
"To take a podium after two punctures is more than I could hope for," he admitted. "Our pace improved as the rally progressed and the Fiesta RS WRC felt good all the way through the weekend. I used the same set-up all rally and I was happy with the handling for our first gravel rally in the car. But we can still make improvements, and that's my aim before the next round in Portugal.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson described the result as a 'dream finish'. "We knew this weekend would be tough and to leave Mexico having increased our lead in both the manufacturers' and drivers' championships is perfect. The team learned much about the set-up of our cars. We'll use our next test to try to improve further ahead of the upcoming gravel rounds," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "Coming to Mexico off the back of victory in Sweden was difficult. It meant our cars were first in the start order, costing valuable time in the opening leg as we swept the stages for the following competitors. I'm delighted with the reliability and performance of the Fiesta RS WRCs and the fact that we lead both championships. We know our cars are competitive, but we still have work to do and I look forward to fighting for victory in Portugal."
1. S Loeb/D Elena Citroen DS3
2. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen Ford Fiesta RS
3. J-M Latvala/M Anttila Ford Fiesta RS
4. P Solberg/C Patterson Citroen DS3
5. M Østberg/J Andersson Ford Fiesta RS
6. H Solberg/I Minor Ford Fiesta RS
7. N Al-Attiyah/G Bernacchini Ford Fiesta S2000
8. M Prokop/J Tománek Ford Fiesta S2000
9. J Hanninen/M Markkula Skoda Fabia S2000
10 F Villagra/J Perez Companc Ford Fiesta RS
1. M Hirvonen 46pts
2. S Loeb 37pts
3. J-M Latvala 31pts
4. M Østberg 28pts
5. P Solberg 23pts
6. S Ogier 15pts
1. Ford Abu Dhabi 73pts
2. Citroen Total 47pts
3. M-Sport Stobart Ford 36pts
4. Petter Solberg 12pts
5. Ice 1 Racing 8pts
6= Team Abu Dhabi 6pts
6= Munchi's Ford 6pts
6= Monster 6pts