Ford World Rally Team drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished third in the Acropolis Rally of Greece today on their comeback from injury. Latvala climbed onto the podium in a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car after team-mates Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson crashed out of this sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship this morning while chasing victory.

Podium: winners Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, third place Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila
Podium: winners Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, third place Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila

Photo by: xpb.cc

Latvala returned to action after missing the previous round with a broken collarbone sustained in a training accident. Both the 27-year-old Finn and Solberg challenged for a win over boulder-strewn mountain roads, but a puncture for Latvala after he hit a bank in the penultimate leg and Solberg’s accident ended their hopes.

The rally lived up to its reputation as the toughest event in the calendar. Many drivers encountered mechanical problems on the rocky roads around the Gulf of Corinth, west of Athens. And, unexpectedly for a summer rally in Greece, heavy rain transformed the gravel tracks into a mudbath yesterday, generating treacherous conditions that drivers likened to driving on ice.

After the Ford duo finished first and second in qualifying, Latvala initially led the rally, which covered 22 speed tests and 409.47km of competition over four days. He fought tooth and nail with Sébastien Loeb, and Latvala was just 2.2sec behind his rival when he hit a bank and punctured a tyre yesterday afternoon. He had to stop to fit a spare wheel and fell to fourth.

With no pressure from behind and no opportunity to close on those ahead, Latvala took no risks over today’s final leg, comprising five special stages and 65.55km. He climbed to third when Solberg retired and claimed two bonus points after finishing second in the final Power Stage. He won 10 stages during the weekend.

“I need to be satisfied in one sense because I said before the rally that I wanted to finish on the podium and I did that,” said Latvala. “Of course, at the same time I’m disappointed because I could have won. It’s good to be back on the podium after a long time away but I need to push for wins now. That’s the only thing I can do.

“It’s quite incredible that once again I was leading the rally and looking good, but couldn’t convert it into victory. I’ve had too many setbacks like that this year and it’s hugely frustrating for the team. I need to iron out the little mistakes and I hope I can turn things round at the next event in New Zealand,” added Latvala, who lies fifth in the championship standings.

The impact knocked the left rear wheel off and that was it.

Petter Solberg

Solberg settled into third and when Latvala punctured, the 37-year-old Norwegian stepped up his pace. He won three consecutive stages yesterday afternoon to restart today just 10.2sec from the lead. However, his victory hopes ended in the opening test when he hit a bank.

“I approached a long left bend in a narrow downhill section,” said Solberg. “I hit the bank on the right of the road and then the car bounced into the bank on the opposite side. The impact knocked the left rear wheel off and that was it. I feel so sorry for the team because I wanted to win but unfortunately it wasn’t to be.

“The plan was to push and try to take two or three seconds back on the first stage. I wanted to put pressure on Loeb, I had to try. After the opening 10km we were equal on time so I decided to push a bit harder. Until the accident my driving was perfect with no mistakes. It’s disappointing but I must look ahead to the next rally and stay positive,” added Solberg, who is fourth in the drivers’ points.

Ford World Rally Team director Malcolm Wilson admitted the outcome was a ‘disappointment’. “It was one of the most closely-fought rallies I can recall. We lost Jari-Matti from the battle for the lead but we had a second chance with Petter. To lose him was doubly disappointing. I’m pleased to see Jari-Matti on the podium on his return from injury and that he had no ill effects,” he said.

Ford Racing motorsport manager Gerard Quinn said: “Jari-Matti made a strong return after injury and a podium was the least he deserved given the pace he showed. The battle for the lead yesterday was thrilling. Petter, too, challenged for victory and on another day perhaps he would have taken the win. Rallies are won and lost in split second incidents and that’s something we saw today.”

News from other Ford teams

Adapta World Rally Team’s Mads Østberg and Jonas Andersson were fourth in a Fiesta RS WRC and lie third in the drivers’ championship. They were one place ahead of the similar Czech Ford National Team car of Martin Prokop and Zdenek Hrůza. Yazeed Al Rahji and Michael Orr took eighth in a Fiesta RRC, while M-Sport Ford World Rally Team’s Ott Tänak and Kuldar Sikk recovered to ninth after opening leg problems. Team-mates Evgeny Novikov and Denis Giraudet restarted today after retiring yesterday when a damaged radiator caused their car’s engine to overheat. However, the problem returned after a few kilometres and they stopped. Brazil World Rally Team’s Daniel Oliveira and Carlos Magalhaes retired in the opening stage of the morning.