Hirvonen claims podium finish for Ford in Acropolis Rally
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished third in the gruelling Acropolis Rally in Greece today after a thrilling final leg. They hunted down Sébastien Loeb in their Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car during a tense battle for second, and ended just three seconds behind after the duel was only decided in the final live TV speed test.
Hirvonen was fastest overall during today's leg, based in the hills outside Loutraki, 90km west of Athens. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila were second quickest in their Fiesta RS WRC, en route to ninth place following a troubled weekend. The Ford Abu Dhabi drivers won four of today's five special stages in this seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
The Acropolis is famed as the toughest round of the series. Rocky gravel mountain tracks and intense heat that reached 35ºC provided a tough challenge for both man and machine throughout the three-day event. Competitors tackled 18 speed tests covering 348.80km, with today's 65.58km of action the shortest leg of the weekend.
Hirvonen restarted fourth, with the leading quartet covered by just 22.4sec. The 30-year-old Finn climbed to third in the opening test and rapidly closed on Loeb. He entered the final Power Stage just 2.6sec behind the Frenchman, but was unable to clinch the runner-up place. Third fastest time in the last test earned him a bonus point for the drivers' championship, in which Hirvonen remains second.
There's no way I would have survived all three days driving like that!
"It was a great fight and I took big risks today to try to close the gaps, driving over every bank and rock," he said. "There's no way I would have survived all three days driving like that! It's the second consecutive rally where I've lost a final day battle by a handful of seconds and that's frustrating. It was a rough and extremely hot rally, but that's normal here, and the car worked perfectly all weekend.
"I knew it was going to be close and if there was one more 20km stage then I believe I could have taken second. I'm consistently scoring good points in the championship, but I need a win. The next round is my home event in Finland and nothing less than victory will be enough there," he added.
Latvala was delayed by transmission problems on Friday and turbo failure yesterday. However, the 26-year-old Finn maintained a strong pace and after restarting in 11th, he climbed back into the points to finish ninth. He won three stages to take his tally for the weekend to five.
"It was a hard weekend, but despite my technical troubles, I finished in the points and I'm relieved to be here," he explained. "I had a good pace and targeted the bonus points in the Power Stage, but it just wasn't our rally. The Greek Gods were not looking after me at all here.
"I'm looking forward to the summer break and then preparing for the next round on home ground in Finland. My chances of winning the drivers' championship have all but disappeared, so my priority in the second half of the season will be to concentrate on scoring points for Ford in the manufacturers' series," he added.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson admitted he was disappointed not to extend Ford's winning record in the championship's toughest round. "We've won here seven times in the last 10 rallies but unfortunately we couldn't improve our great record. Both drivers performed well. Mikko drove a calculated rally but lost out by a small amount, while I'm disappointed for Jari-Matti because he was in a perfect position to challenge for victory," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "It was a tough weekend and I'm disappointed that we didn't close out the first half of the season with a win. It's a shame that today's performance wasn't replicated on Friday and Saturday because that would have put us into a winning position. We will focus on the second part of the season and pursue victories more aggressively, because both championships are still open."
News from other Ford teams
M-Sport Stobart Ford's Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor finished fifth, one position ahead of team-mates Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin, who were unsettled by an engine misfire yesterday. FERM Power Tools drivers Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte finished 10th while the third M-Sport Stobart car of Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson recovered to claim 12th after retiring on the opening day when he went off the road. Rene Kuipers / Annemieke Hulzebos were 17th, while Lambros Athanassoulas / Nikolaos Zakheos were 19th after recovering from a first day retirement with broken suspension. Evgeny Novikov / Denis Giraudet finished 20th, despite retiring with broken suspension in the first leg and again yesterday with a broken alternator belt. Munchi's Ford duo Federico Villagra / José Diaz retired with two stages remaining after a return of the engine issues that forced them out yesterday.
The championship pauses for a mid-season break before restarting with Rally Finland on 28 - 30 July. The gravel event, one of the sport's classics, will be based in Jyväskylä.