Mikko Hirvonen proclaimed it 'a hugely encouraging start to the season' in the 2011 World Rally Championship after claiming the runner-up spoils on Rally Mexico, as he eked out his advantage in the drivers' title chase on what Malcolm Wilson described as a 'perfect' weekend.
As had transpired in recent editions, Ford did not have the pace to challenge arch-rival Citroën in Mexico, even now both manufacturers have new cars. However, Hirvonen and Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala remained in the mix throughout and benefitted from the late retirement of leader Sébastien Ogier [see separate story – click here
] to seal second and third places respectively, three-quarters of a minute apart.
The opening dirt event of the 2011 WRC campaign was a punishing one, with rocky roads in the Sierra de Lobos mountains near León, 400km north-west of Mexico City, conspiring with temperatures of 33ºC to take a heavy toll indeed on competitors. Few drivers escaped technical problems, but on the car's gravel debut, the Fiesta RS WRCs of Hirvonen and Latvala completed the four-day rally unscathed, with a total of three punctures their only troubles.
Entrants tackled 22 speed tests covering 365km over four days, with the challenge rendered even tougher by the altitude as the roads climbed to more than 2,700 metres, and the thinner air deprived cars of up to 20 per cent of their normal power, necessitating a different driving approach.
What's more, Hirvonen had to battle against the first leg disadvantage of opening the roads, sweeping a deep carpet of loose gravel from the tracks. That left a cleaner and faster line for those behind, but the 30-year-old Finn produced a composed effort throughout, and second position has seen him extend his world championship lead from seven points to nine, with the fastest time of anyone on the 8km Guanajuato Power Stage snaring him an additional three markers.
“It's a great result from the championship perspective, especially considering the disadvantage of our road position on Friday,” enthused the Rally Sweden winner. “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 on improving the car, but it's a hugely encouraging start to the season.”
Latvala recovered well to grab the final spot on the rostrum after losing two minutes when he stopped to change a left-rear puncture on the opening day. That delay dropped the Finn down to ninth, but he had climbed back to fourth by the end of the leg and despite a second puncture on Saturday, the 25-year-old Crash.net
columnist paced two of the last six stages and found himself promoted to third when Ogier crashed out.
“To take a podium after two punctures is more than I could have hoped for,” he reflected, similarly placed third in the drivers' table still. “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.”
The combined points total of Hirvonen and Latvala also enabled Ford Abu Dhabi to open up its margin over the Citroën Total World Rally Team in the manufacturers' chase to 26 markers – and team director Malcolm Wilson confessed that on an event that has not traditionally been kind to the Blue Oval, the outcome represented a 'dream finish'.
“We knew this weekend would be tough, so to leave Mexico having increased our lead in both the manufacturers' and drivers' championships is perfect,” the Englishman remarked. “The team learned much about the set-up of our cars, and we'll use our next test to try to improve further ahead of the upcoming gravel rounds.”
“Coming to Mexico off the back of victory in Sweden was difficult,” agreed Ford of Europe Motorsport Chief Gerard Quinn. “It meant our cars were first in the start order, costing valuable time on 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.”