Conditions hamper Hirvonen victory bid on Portuguese gravel
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lie second after today's second and penultimate leg of Rally de Portugal. The Finns endured the worst of the driving conditions on the slippery gravel tracks in the hills above the Algarve holiday resort of Faro, and returned to the town this evening 26.8sec from the lead in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car.

After leading this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship last night, 28-year-old Hirvonen had the unenviable position of being first in the start order over today's six speed tests covering 145.18km. The recent spell of dry weather left the roads in the Serra do Caldeirão hills coated with loose gravel and Hirvonen faced the unwelcome task of sweeping the dusty roads to leave a cleaner and faster line for those behind.

He knew he would lose time to his rivals as a result but Hirvonen delivered a battling performance to minimise his loss. After restarting with a 15.0sec advantage, two second fastest times and a third place during the morning loop saw him reach the midday service break in second, just 6.9sec off the lead. That gap widened during the afternoon but Hirvonen has the opportunity to regain that time tomorrow when leader Sébastien Loeb must undertake the sweeping role.

"A gap of nearly 27sec is a lot but I won't settle for second," said Hirvonen. "I hope Loeb will struggle with the conditions, as I did today, because I'm not counting on him having a problem. It has been a hard day for the tyres. The roads were warm and abrasive, especially this afternoon, and perhaps I braked too aggressively because my front tyres were totally worn at the end of the last stage.

"First on the road wasn't easy. The surface was very loose this morning. Even this afternoon when we repeated the special stages I was still sweeping a little because the cars lower down the order take different lines and so the clear path that developed was dirty again. Tomorrow's stages are technical and hopefully there won't be any dust hanging in the air. My only option is to attack and drive flat out," he added.

Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr restarted in 22nd position and climbed to 11th in their Focus RS WRC. "I stalled the engine in the last stage this morning but I'm pleased with the day. The car performed well and I lifted my pace and style, entering corners in a different, but faster, way. In medium and low-speed corners I need to work out where the grip is and then I could go faster," said Al Qassimi.

Clear blue skies and temperatures nudging 24ºC brought huge crowds flocking into the hills. "The fans here are amazing. When I come into a corner all I can see is a sea of people," added Al Qassimi.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson praised Hirvonen's performance. "He drove incredibly well considering he was first in the start order and Loeb had the advantage of being third. I hoped the gap would be less than 20sec but he will continue to keep the pressure on tomorrow, especially as he has the benefit of a better position in the start order than Loeb," he said.

Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila have reported no lasting effects following their horrific accident yesterday when their Focus RS WRC plunged 150 metres down a hillside. Anttila flew to Finland this morning while Latvala will remain in Portugal for public relations work on Monday and Tuesday.

News from other Ford teams

Stobart drivers Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin and team-mates Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud are split by just 0.9sec tonight in fifth and sixth respectively. Wilson stalled his Focus RS WRC's engine at a hairpin this morning, while Solberg struggled to find a rhythm. However, the Norwegian attacked hard this afternoon to close in on his colleague. The Munchi's Focus RS of Federico Villagra and Jose Diaz climbed from 12th to 10th.

Tomorrow’s Route

The final day is a shorter version of the opening two legs. After leaving Faro at 06.50, competitors tackle two identical loops of two stages in the Serra do Caldeirão hills, split by a return to the service park. A repeat of the super special stage inside Faro's international soccer stadium that started the action on Thursday evening brings the rally to a close after another 79.97km of competition. The finish takes place at the stadium at 14.10.

Leaderboard after Day 2
1. S Loeb/D Elena FRA Citroen C4 2hr 56min 15.6sec
2. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Focus RS 2hr 56min 42.4sec
3. D Sordo/M Marti ESP Citroen C4 2hr 57min 12.0sec
4. P Solberg/P Mills NOR Citroen Xsara 2hr 58min 15.2sec
5. M Wilson/S Martin GBR Ford Focus RS 2hr 59min 38.5sec
6. H Solberg/C Menkerud NOR Ford Focus RS 2hr 59min 39.4sec
7. E Novikov/D Moscatt RUS Citroen C4 3hr 01min 15.0sec
8. M Østberg/O Unnerud NOR Subaru Impreza 3hr 01min 15.8sec
9. C Rautenbach/D Barritt ZIM Citroen C4 3hr 03min 06.2sec
10 F Villagra/J Perez Companc ARG Ford Focus RS 3hr 05min 50.7sec

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