28 Mar 08
After four stages of Rally Argentina, Ford’s team leader Mikko Hirvonen leads the event by a margin of 50.8 seconds from Citroen’s Sebastien Loeb who lies second. Chris Atkinson of the Subaru World Rally Team is third, 43sec behind Loeb.
Rain, fog and a tremendous amount of mud made conditions extremely challenging for crews as they tackled this morning’s four special stages. Road position was a key factor on fresh stages, with front runners getting the benefit of smoother roads which quickly became rough and rutted.
Hirvonen took the lead on the opening 18km stage after a setting a remarkable time 48sec quicker than his Ford team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala who was next fastest.
“We had no split times so I just did the best I could,” said Hirvonen. “The fog was terrible, we could only see about 10 metres ahead of us in places. When we crossed the finish I actually didn’t think it was such a great time. I said to Jarmo we’ll either lose a minute or gain a minute here - but it turned out we did okay! The roads will be even muddier this afternoon, but even though I have a good lead I need to continue at this pace."
Hirvonen won the following 23.28km test from Ascochinga back across the hills to La Cumbre and rounded off a superb morning with another victory on the last special stage of the loop, the 9.61km San Marcos - Charbonier run as SS4.
Hirvonen’s team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala, however, struck trouble in the second stage. "I didn't enjoy the first stage and didn't feel comfortable going into the next test," said Latvala. "About 1km after the start I came to a flat left corner that tightened and I hit the bank. That bounced the car across the road and I rolled off the track at the next right corner. The car landed with Miikka's side up against a small tree. Spectators helped us move the car off the tree and rolled it back onto its wheels before finding a small road that led back to the stage. The damage wasn't big, just a cracked windscreen and some body damage."
Latvala lost nine minutes and dropped to 30th place allowing reigning world champion Sebastien Loeb up into second. But Latvala’s fight back began on the very next stage when he set the fastest time. He returned to the service area in 21st place.
Loeb said he had found the conditions difficult, and was surprised by Mikko’s speed on the first stage. “At the end of SS1 we though we were 10 seconds quicker than Mikko, it was only when we got to the start of SS3 that we discovered we were 50 seconds slower,” said Loeb. “Mikko has quite a big gap now and it’s hard to know what I can do about it. I really tried hard on the stages.”
Chris Atkinson of the Subaru World Rally Team said he was happy to bring his Impreza back to service in third. "It’s been a good start for us but difficult for everyone. It’s very muddy and with the fog and the rain we couldn’t see much. The surface is so loose and I’m not feeling totally comfortable on the mud and the ruts so I can’t attack as much as I’d like. This afternoon the stages will have got more rutted so the guys will make some changes to the car in service and hopefully we’ll be able to push a little more.”
Chris’s Subaru team-mate Petter Solberg had a trouble free drive to fourth place, but said it hadn’t been easy. “It’s so, so tough this morning, incredibly tricky, especially starting further down the order,” said Solberg. “Road position is important today as the stages only get worse. They’re so slippery with the rain and the mud, and we had full fog as well so visibility was bad. We’ll make some changes in service to help the balance of the car in these conditions. This afternoon the stages will be even more slippery and just a small change in the weather can make a big difference so we’ll see.”
Gigi Galli of the Stobart Ford Team rounded off the top five. “That was an incredible start to the rally and the first two stages were the most difficult I have ever seen,” he said. “This is a new challenge for us in Argentina because I have only done three stages on gravel in the Focus WRC so I am constantly learning a new driving style this morning especially in the wet. The hard-compound Pirelli tyre is holding up very well and hopefully the conditions will dry up for the stages this afternoon.”