Cautious Hirvonen steers steady path through Irish downpour
Caution rather than outright speed served Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen well during today’s second leg of Rally Ireland as the BP–Ford World Rally Team duo maintained their grip on fourth place. Heavy rain left standing water covering the narrow and twisty lanes in Northern Ireland and Hirvonen’s safety–first policy enabled him to preserve his first leg position in his Ford Focus RS World Rally Car.

In conditions that were almost as demanding as yesterday’s mud–caked roads, the Finns had their minds firmly fixed on obtaining the points necessary to secure BP–Ford’s second consecutive manufacturers’ title in the FIA World Rally Championship. Sixth position would provide the three points required to do that, so 27–year–old Hirvonen was happy to keep an eye on the times of fifth–placed Petter Solberg and resist the temptation to chase Jari–Matti Latvala in third.

After yesterday’s opening leg in the Republic of Ireland, the second day crossed the border for two identical loops of three speed tests near the town of Enniskillen in the County Fermanagh lakelands. The opening special stage of each loop was shortened so drivers tackled 104.74km of competition. The rain varied from light this morning to heavy this afternoon and a full wet weather set–up was Hirvonen’s choice for his Focus RS throughout the day.

Hirvonen matched his pace to Solberg’s split times and a string of consistent top five times enabled him to end the leg 28.8sec behind Latvala and 15.6sec clear of Solberg.

"I didn’t need to attack, I just need to finish and take those three points for Ford," said Hirvonen. "I drove so steadily that I couldn’t find a rhythm but I guess that didn’t matter. There wasn’t so much rain this morning, just a little bit in all three stages, and the roads were damp rather than wet. They were good stages with jumps and crests like we have in Finland, and in the dry they would be fast.

"The conditions were more difficult this afternoon but in a way it was easier because I could remember the roads. There was a little asphalt but mostly it was gravel and mud. I’m not trying to catch Jari–Matti and my plan for tomorrow will be the same as today," he added.

BP–Ford team–mates Khalid Al Qassimi and Nicky Beech climbed from 27th overnight to 19th in their Focus RS, but the 35–year–old Abu Dhabi driver continued to find conditions tricky. "I’ve never seen weather like this, even the local drivers were finding it difficult," he said. "Where there was grip, or it was drier, I pushed harder but I spent a lot of time trying to find that grip.

"This afternoon I stalled the engine for about 15sec at the start of the first stage. That spurred me on to push hard to make up lost time and it was the best stage of the rally for me. The final test was extremely hard, with water running across the road all the way through," he added.

BP–Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was full of praise for Hirvonen. "It has been a solid, reliable drive. He fully understands the role he has to play and he did that superbly. He maintained his position and he will be asked to do drive in the same way tomorrow," he said.

News from our Rivals
Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) was untroubled and extended his lead to 59.3sec after winning four of the six stages. Dani Sordo (Citroen) retained second, despite going off the road near the finish of the second stage and losing 30sec. Jari–Matti Latvala (Ford) dropped 30sec after going into a field on the opening stage this afternoon but the Finn remains third, ahead of Hirvonen. Petter Solberg (Subaru) and Guy Wilks (Subaru) complete the top six. Manfred Stohl, seventh overnight, (Citroen) left the road on the opening stage and lost almost seven minutes and then went off for good two stages later.

Tomorrow’s Route
The final leg covers both sides of the Irish border. After leaving Sligo at 07.00, competitors tackle two tests in Northern Ireland before crossing over the border for the final two stages in the Republic. The final test at Mullaghmore hugs the Donegal Bay coastline and will provide a picture–postcard backdrop for live television coverage. The finish is back in Sligo at 14.18 after another 55.91km of competition.

Leg 2 Leaderboard
1. S Loeb/D Elena 2h 30m35.2sec
2. D Sordo/M Marti +59.3sec
3. J M Latvala/M Anttila +2m08.8sec
4. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen +2m37.6sec
5. P Solberg/P Mills +2m53.2sec
6. G Wilks/P Pugh +5m52.0sec
7. M Wilson/M Orr +9m23.3sec
8. G MacHale/A Harryman +10m07.7sec
9. A Mikkelsen/O Floene +13m01.3sec
10. A Araujo/M Ramalho +14m29.7sec

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