x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ford will have to pick up the pace

Winning is a familiar feeling for the six-time world champion Loeb, and although Hirvonen might view things differently, the same game is being played again.

What a difference a round makes. With last month's successful Swedish appetizer fully digested, an unsavoury helping of Mexican misery now sits somewhat uncomfortably in the BP Ford Abu Dhabi team gullet. Having scored a podium double in the Scandinavian opener, Ford's Finnish duo of Mikko Hirvonen [first] and Jari-Matti Latvala [third] had been confident going into the second round.

In Mexico, however, their Citroen rivals outwitted, out-drove and outpaced them. The Ford pair's humbling trans-Atlantic experience must be dissected and digested if they are to reignite their title challenges in Jordan - the venue of the third round next month. "It was difficult all the way through and we never had the pace to match the Citroens," said Hirvonen after finishing fourth. "This is a special rally in that we never do well here, but it's good for the championship that more drivers are fighting for wins - it's a different game."

Unfortunately, last year's championship runner-up is only partially correct. France's Sebastien Loeb, whose fourth successive Mexico victory has thrust him seven points clear of Hirvonen in the drivers' standings, appears characteristically dominant. Winning is a familiar feeling for the six-time world champion, and although Hirvonen might view things differently, the same game is being played again.

"I knew from previous years that we have struggled in Mexico, but I was still surprised [at the Citroens' speed]," added Hirvonen. "We were always behind, but we got some points so it's not that bad. I'm confident about the coming rallies and we'll have to see what happens in Jordan, where we will be able to play the tactics." Tactics, however, count for nothing without stage wins. Of the 22 routes in Mexico, Citroen drivers won 21 of them - the remaining stage was cancelled. Loeb was victorious in every run on Saturday, barring the super special curtain-call, which his Junior Team colleague, Sebastien Ogier, won. It was one of four spectator-friendly speed tests the young Frenchmen claimed during the weekend.

Ford, for all their efforts, could not manage a single stage win; a spattering of third and fourths, plus a few seconds, was all the usually reliable Hirvonen-Latvala double-act could muster. "I thought we'd be fighting for the podium - in fact, we had no chance," admitted Latvala. "Citroen's team performance with their cars was better than ours. They have a six-speed gear box and we have a five-speed; it's never an issue except here. But I believe we'll be at the same level in Jordan."

The real issue, however, is numbers. Citroen have four drivers capable of stage and rally wins, not to mention the former F1 driver Kimi Raikkonen, in their ranks. Ken Block - the American who is untested at global level - provides little in the way of a point-scoring counter-punch for Ford. Even Latvala, who led his title-chasing teammate overall by the time the cars embarked on the penultimate stage, was asked to move over to safeguard higher points for the team's No 1.

"That's my job, to be the second driver," said Latvala. "I'm happy about having completed the rally with no mistakes, that's my positive." Ford's team director Malcolm Wilson was left scratching his head. "We lost too much time on the first day but we don't know why," he said. "We need to find the reasons, and we will, but at the moment it's a bit confusing." With honours even after the season's opening race, let the next round - the Middle East's home fixture - commence. @Email:emegson@thenational.ae