Hirvonen: It’s been a really enjoyable day
Hirvonen took the lead on the final test of the day
M-Sport World Rally Team’s Mikko Hirvonen was back on form as Rally de Portugal embarked on the first full day of competition today. Engrossed in an epic battle with fellow M-Sport driver Ott Tänak and reigning world champion Sebastien Ogier, Hirvonen took the lead on the final test of the day – holding a 3.7 lead over Tänak and a 6.5 second advantage over Ogier going into tomorrow’s penultimate day.
Growing in confidence with each new kilometre, Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen looked at one behind the wheel of their Ford Fiesta RS WRC. Proving to have lost none of their drive or determination to win, the M-Sport pairing put in a highly competitive and consistent performance to come out on top at the end of the day.
Conditions were far from easy, and crews had to contend with a journey into the unknown as deceptively changing grip levels and tricky blind crests were the order of the day. Hirvonen adapted to the conditions brilliantly – setting a string of top-three times including a fastest time through the final 26.48 kilometre stage (SS7).
Rewarded with running as the final World Rally Car on the road for tomorrow’s 146.28 kilometres, the Finn will be aiming to defend his position and bring home a strong result for the M-Sport team.
Unfortunately, there was less good fortune for Hirvonen’s teammate Elfyn Evans. Carrying too much speed into a right-hand corner through the first pass of Almodovar (SS4), the youngster slid wide, forcing his Fiesta RS WRC into a roll and becoming stranded down a steep embankment.
Evans and co-driver Daniel Barritt will hopefully restart under Rally 2 regulations tomorrow, determined to continue their development at the WRC’s highest league. Before being claimed by the unforgiving nature of the Portuguese stages, the Britons had reduced the gap to the leaders to less than half a second per kilometre, and they will be looking to continue that trend tomorrow.
Mikko Hirvonen (1st) said:
“It’s been a really enjoyable day with a great fight at the front; to be leading at the end of it, it’s a really good feeling. It’s not been an easy day by all means, but everything has been working well and I think that the times and the position that we find ourselves in now is proof of that.
“We opted for the soft tyres for the afternoon, and on the long stage [SS7] I think it probably did help us. When I left service, I was sure we had made the right choice, but after the first stage [of the afternoon, SS5] I was a little nervous. It was a tricky one to get right, but I think we managed it well.
“There are still two difficult days to go, and I am sure that Sebastien [Ogier] and Ott [Tänak] will not give up without a fight, but neither will we!”
Elfyn Evans (63rd) said:
“It was in a very fast section of SS4. Basically we just misjudged our braking into a corner. We were carrying too much speed and ran wide on the outside.
“This stage was actually one of the better in terms of conditions during the recce. It was just very compact and a little damp under the trees into the corner. That, combined with the late braking on my part and my assuming that there was perhaps a little more grip than reality was the reason for the mistake.
“Of course it’s disappointing because I was really pleased with the progress we were making up until that point. This is still a development year for us, so we’ll come back tomorrow and try to pick up where we left off. There are a lot of really tricky stages on the cards so it’s likely that we’ll use the first pass to find our way, but we’ll still be aiming to reduce that gap to the leaders.”
Team Principal, Malcolm Wilson OBE, said:
“It’s been an absolutely stunning performance from Mikko [Hirvonen] today. To see him back where he belongs is fantastic. He and Jarmo [Lehtinen, co-driver] have proved that they are still a formidable pairing and that the Fiesta RS WRC remains a highly competitive contender – a brilliant day from him and from the team today.
“Hopefully Elfyn [Evans] will be back on the stages tomorrow to gain more experience and continue the progress we’re looking for. He put in a good performance before the mistake. He admitted that he needed to be neater in places, and he seemed to be doing that. It was a real shame that he was caught out by what have been some very difficult stages today.”
ADDITIONAL M-SPORT DRIVERS
Following a close fought battle for victory at last weekend’s warm-up at the Fafe Rally Sprint, Estonian Ott Tänak was straight on the pace as Rally de Portugal kicked off with the first full day of competition today.
Despite admitting that his pacenotes were less than perfect – too slow given the demanding conditions for the recce earlier in the week – the 26-year-old was fighting at the sharp end of the field. Amassing a string of top-three stage times, the M-Sport driver currently holds second place, just 3.7 seconds adrift of the lead.
Also going strongly, Henning Solberg was entertaining the crowds. The Norwegian last tackled a WRC stage in anger during Rally Sweden earlier this year, but he was not going to let a lack of seat time stand in his way. Despite suffering a puncture through SS3, the charismatic Norwegian challenged the front-runners and currently holds seventh place overall.
In the WRC2 category, M-Sport’s range of award-winning Ford Fiesta rally cars are once again dominating the field with the top-11 cars all designed and built by the Cumbrian firm. Being run by the M-Sport team this weekend, Pontus Tidemand and co-driver Ola Fløene piloted their Ford Fiesta R5 to third position – just over a minute adrift of a battling Jari Ketomaa in a similar Fiesta R5 and Nasser Al-Attiyah behind the wheel of a Ford Fiesta RRC.
Ott Tänak (2nd) said:
“It’s good for us to be in this position. It wasn’t easy because I haven’t driven a world rally car on gravel for a long time, but I think we made the most of it.
“We had a really good feeling with the car. We were struggling with the pacenotes during the morning, but we worked really hard during service to make sure they were right, and this afternoon was perfect. I had the confidence and I was able to push for the good times.
“Tomorrow won’t be an easy day, but if we can keep the same pace as today, hopefully we won’t be too far away. We just need to keep our focus and continue with what we did today.”
Henning Solberg (7th said):
“It’s been a good run for us all day. OK, it was a bit disappointing to have the puncture on SS3, but this is something that can happen to anyone.
“I am on it all the time – the throttle is stuck to the bottom of my foot! I promise you that throttle pedal will be planted to the floor again tomorrow!”
Pontus Tidemand (3rd in WRC 2) said:
“We’ve had a really good feeling today and it’s getting better and better. The car is so comfortable to drive and even though this is not the easiest event to start with a new car, I think we can be pleased with the job we have done today.
“We’ll try to improve as the weekend goes on, but Jari [Ketomaa] and Nasser [Al-Attiyah] are pushing really hard at the front. For us, we just need to focus on our own rally and continuing our own development at this level.”
M-Sport Managing Director, Malcolm Wilson OBE, said:
“Like Mikko [Hirvonen], Ott [Tänak] has been sensational today. Even despite struggling with his pacenotes through the opening loop, he and Raigo [Molder, co-driver] put in the work during the midday service break and are thoroughly deserving of their second place today. A great drive from the pair of them.
“It’s also fantastic to see our cars dominating the WRC 2 category once again. Jari [Ketomaa] and Nasser [Al-Attiyah] are locked into what looks set to be a very exciting battle, and I have been very impressed with the mature way in which Pontus [Tidemand] has tackled such a difficult event on what is his first time behind the wheel of the [Ford] Fiesta R5.”
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