PHOTO: Mikko Hirvonen back on form in Portugal (Event pic)
MIKKO Hirvonen was back on form in his Ford Fiesta RS to lead Vodafone Rally de Portugal after a dramatic Friday in the fourth round of the 2014 WRC.
The Finn led after seven stages from Ott Tänak, also Ford-mounted, and Volkswagen’s world champion Sebastien Ogier.
But the headlines-grabbers also included Hyundai, whose drivers Dani Sordo and Thierry Neuville each scored the new team’s maiden stage wins, and Jari-Matti Latvala, Robert Kubica, Elfyn Evans and Kris Meeke, who all went off the road in tricky conditions.
(Australian mother-and-daughter crew Molly and Coral Taylor made their debut in Round 1 of the Junior WRC, driving a Citroen DS3 R3T, but no official results have been reported yet.)
Hirvonen was the day’s third leader, winning the final test to return to the overnight parc ferme 3.7sec clear of a hugely-impressive Tänak, with Ogier a further 2.8sec back.
Back in a Ford this season after two frustrating years with Citroen, the three-time Rally Australia winner was one of six drivers covered by just 9.0sec after three stages on the morning loop.
But he feared he had ruined his chances by opting for soft-compound Michelin tyres in the afternoon when the roads dried faster than he anticipated.
Although the rubber wore quickly on abrasive roads in the hills above the Algarve, his choice proved better suited than the hard compound selected by Ogier.
“The tyres moved about a lot in the final stage, but it’s fantastic to be ahead,” Hirvonen said.
“We’re in a good fight but Ogier won’t be happy with the situation, so I’m sure he’ll attack tomorrow.”
Ogier, who led after Thursday night’s curtain-raiser in Lisbon, slipped behind Dani Sordo who won the day’s opening two tests. They were the first stage wins for Hyundai’s i20 and propelled the car into the lead of a WRC round for the first time.
Despite opening the road in conditions that changed constantly between dry and muddy, Ogier regained the advantage on the morning’s final test, only to lose out to Hirvonen this afternoon.
Tänak, like Sordo, was assisted by a low starting position, but the Estonian was as impressive here as in Sweden after more than 12 months away from WRC action.
Fourth is Mads Østberg, the Citroen DS3 pilot 19.1sec behind Ogier and just one-tenth of a second clear of Sordo. Thierry Neuville recovered from early understeer to hold sixth, having won the penultimate stage.
Despite a puncture, WRC returnee Henning Solberg is seventh ahead of Andreas Mikkelsen, who is rebuilding his confidence after his Rally Mexico roll.
Martin Prokop and WRC 2 leader Jari Ketomaa complete the top 10.
Robert Kubica ripped a wheel off his Fiesta RS after cutting a corner and hitting a tree in SS4 and Elfyn Evans rolled several times after missing a braking point in the same stage.
Jari-Matti Latvala was 0.4sec behind Ogier when he rolled out of second midway through SS5 and Kris Meeke went off the road at the same point as Evans, but on the second pass. The Briton, competing in Portugal for the first time, put the accident down to a pace note mistake – a number of drivers had found pace-noting difficult in the torrential rain conditions during reconnaissance.
Saturday’s action starts at 8.30.am, local time Drivers face two identical loops of three stages covering 146.28km, including the 31.90km Santana da Serra, the longest of the rally.