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.”