SAARLAND - Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished fourth in Rallye Deutschland as the opening asphalt round of the FIA World Rally Championship season delivered a tough encounter. Their Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car headed the team's challenge as colleagues Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished 14th following a hugely frustrating weekend.
After eight loose surface rallies, the new-generation WRCs finally had the opportunity to tackle a pure asphalt event in south-west Germany. Trier, the country's oldest city, hosted the rally which proved as unpredictable as ever thanks to the vagaries of the weather and the varied characteristics of the speed tests.
Competitors tackled 19 special stages covering 359.59km over three distinctly different types of roads. Bumpy, narrow tracks among the undulating vineyards alongside the banks of the Mosel river contrasted with flowing public roads in the Saarland countryside.
But the sternest challenge was offered by the tank training tracks on the Baumholder military land. Wide asphalt contrasted with bumpy, abrasive concrete and high kerbstones, known as hinkelsteins, which line the roads to keep the tanks in position were ready to punish the unwary.
The team's choice of hard compound Michelin Pilot Sport tyres delivered an early setback when rain deluged the middle test of Friday morning's opening loop. Hirvonen dropped more than 30sec, and after hitting a wall and damaging his car's suspension in the afternoon, the 31-year-old Finn ended the leg in third. A puncture on Saturday morning cost a minute, and although Hirvonen won the opening test of Sunday's final leg among the Mosel grapes, he could not regain the podium position.
"It was a difficult weekend because so many things happened," said Hirvonen, who is third in the drivers' standings. "When everything went well I had a good pace and if we continue to work hard as a team and improve the car, then we can challenge on the remaining asphalt rounds. I'm looking forward to getting back on the gravel at the next round in Australia where I feel we can be strong."
Latvala led after Friday's opening stage, but the 26-year-old Finn also lost time in the rain before an electronics problem and two punctures dropped him to 15th. On Saturday he climbed to 10th, despite a stomach upset, before puncturing a tyre after hitting a tree stump and crashing on the next bend. He retired but started Sunday's final leg, held in torrential rain initially, under SupeRally rules.
"This was the most difficult rally that I've ever had as a factory driver in a WRC car," he said. "I encountered many problems, some of which were down to my driving, and I'm disappointed with the final outcome. On the other hand I also set some good times, winning three stages. The car felt good and we have improved on asphalt as a package. Brakes and suspension are two areas in which we can work."
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson admitted the result wasn't what he hoped for. "We came here with confidence and made a great start, but after that we had many dramas. When we were troublefree, I was pleased with the improved pace we showed against our rivals, but we have a lot of work to do. It's very competitive and everything has to be 100 per cent right to win. It's the small details that you can't afford to go wrong with at this level," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "This was the toughest rally I have experienced personally and for the team. Many of the issues were out of our control. But we need to put this weekend behind us and focus on the remaining four rounds and put the competitiveness of our car to the forefront by claiming some victories."
The series returns to gravel next month with a new-look Rally Australia. Coffs Harbour is the new home for the final non-European round of the season on 8 -11 September.
1. S Ogier/J Ingrassia FRA Citroen DS3 3hr 32min 15.9sec
2. S Loeb/D Elena FRA Citroen DS3 3hr 32min 55.7sec
3. D Sordo/C Del Barrio ESP Mini John Cooper 3hr 34min 11.5sec
4. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Fiesta RS 3hr 34min 59.6sec
5. P Solberg/C Patterson NOR Citroen DS3 3hr 36min 03.9sec
6. K Räikkönen/K Lindström FIN Citroen DS3 3hr 39min 40.5sec
7. H Solberg/I Minor NOR Ford Fiesta RS 3hr 40min 01.8sec
8. A Araujo/M Ramalho PRT Mini John Cooper 3hr 41min 45.7sec
9. P Van Merksteijn/E Mombaerts NLD Citroen DS3 3hr 42min 17.5sec
10 D Kuipers/F Miclotte NLD Ford Fiesta RS 3hr 42min 24.9sec
1. S Loeb 192pts
2. S Ogier 167pts
3. M Hirvonen 156pts
4. J-M Latvala 96pts
5. P Solberg 94pts
6. M Østberg 56pts
1. Citroen Total 333pts
2. Ford Abu Dhabi 242pts
3. M-Sport Stobart Ford 105pts
4. Petter Solberg 83pts
5. Ice 1 Racing 48pts
6. Munchi’s Ford 32pts