WRC

Hirvonen takes snowy Rally Norway victory

Hirvonen takes snowy Rally Norway victory

Mikko Hirvonen took his second World Rally Championship victory in convincing fashion, taking the lead of the first Rally Norway on the very first stage and never looking back. Hirvonen led a Ford 1-2-3 finish in the rally, with his Ford Focus...

Mikko Hirvonen took his second World Rally Championship victory in convincing fashion, taking the lead of the first Rally Norway on the very first stage and never looking back. Hirvonen led a Ford 1-2-3 finish in the rally, with his Ford Focus RS WRC teammate Marcus Gronholm in second and Henning Solberg in a Stobart M-Sport Focus in third.

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen.
Photo by xpb.cc.
"I value this more than than Australian victory," Hirvonen said, referring to his first WRC career win in Rally Australia last year. "I've led since the start and battled with Marcus and Loeb since Friday morning. I've beaten them both here fair and square after a great fight. Although I won in Australia last year, I didn't have to overcome their challenge then so I regard this as my first 'real' WRC win."

The junior driver on the Ford squad, Hirvonen was not intimidated by the challenge of two-time champion Gronholm or three-time champion Sebastien Loeb, but attacked strongly, driving at his own pace throughout the rally. With few drivers familiar with the roads near Lillehammer, no one had had advantage at the start, and Hirvonen was able to use his natural speed in the heavy snow conditions.

Driving mistake-free throughout the event, Hirvonen did not target fast stage times, winning only three further stages after the first one -- where he set the tone with an 11.2-second margin to Gronholm.

Starting today's final leg, which would again pass through some of the toughest stages in the rally, he held a 19.3-second lead, and that was easily enough to avoid taking unnecessary risks. Easing off on the final stage, 44.27-km Eleverum, Hirvonen still crossed the line 9.5 seconds ahead of his more experienced teammate.

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen.
Photo by xpb.cc.
"Neither Marcus nor I had to drive at maximum speed today," he explained. "But in those circumstances it's easy to relax and make a mistake. I tried to concentrate on every single corner and followed Marcus' split times. The stages were so enjoyable but at the same time they were extremely difficult. Yesterday we had blizzard conditions on one test and I don't think I've ever driven a stage like that."

Gronholm may not have been quite able to keep up with Hirvonen, but he had an edge over everyone else, holding a steady second position throughout the rally and scoring four stage wins even with his focus on the eight championship points that he could gain over Loeb.

"I would have preferred a win, but second is quite good since Loeb didn't score any points. I'm leading the drivers' championships and BP-Ford leads the manufacturers' series so it doesn't get any better," commented the Finn.

"It was a difficult weekend with plenty of snow and narrow roads," Gronholm continued. "I wasn't completely happy with my own performance because I couldn't find a perfect rhythm. But looking at the last two weeks as a whole, I have to be happy to take a win and a second place."

Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen.
Photo by xpb.cc.
Sebastien Loeb, not score any points? Indeed, Loeb completed the rally in 14th place, his worst WRC finish since the 2001 Rally of Great Britain, when he was still driving a Citroen Saxo.

Loeb attacked mercilessly throughout the rally, scoring eight stage wins -- as many as Hirvonen and Gronholm put together -- but taking risk after risk. And the risks did not pay off: Loeb missed a turn on Friday's SS5 and stalled his Citroen C4 WRC on SS6, and then hit snowbanks in three consecutive stages on Saturday, dropping far back from the leaders. Over 18 minutes from the front is not where one expects to see the defending world champion.

To make matters worse for the Citroen team, Daniel Sordo was struggling in the snow, and eventually had to abandon his car after getting stuck in a ditch. While he was able to restart under the SupeRally rules, the end result was a 25th place, 34 minutes off the leaders, and not a single manufacturers' championship point for the Citroen factory team to take home.

Rather, it was Ford's weekend in the Norwegian mountains, and Henning Solberg underscored that point in his Stobart M-Sport-entered Ford Focus RS WRC, taking third place and his second career podium in a stonking drive in his home event. The five-time Norwegian rally champion battled with his younger brother, Petter, throughout event, and finally clinched the position on today's final leg.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by Citro?n Communication.
"I am so happy with my result and in front of my home country in Norway it just feels amazing," he beamed. "It was something special to battle with Petter, he is a great driver and I know he was going flat out also. We have had a good rally, really trying our best the whole way through and it has paid off to push for the podium today. I am so happy with my result."

Henning had cut his brother's lead down to 9.9 seconds on Saturday's final stages, and with today's stages passing through the Mountain, Ringsaker and Elverum, three of the toughest stages of the rally, the opportunity was there. And the elder Solberg brother was not about to let it slip through his fingers: on Mountain, the first stage of the day, he set the second-fastest time, 3.3 seconds behind Loeb, and turned that 9.9-second deficit to a 10.1-second edge.

Starting the final stage, Henning was 16 seconds in front of his brother, when disaster struck: he stalled his Focus at the start, losing valuable seconds before he could restart the engine and set off on a furious drive to ensure a third-place finish. And achieve it he did, beating Petter on the stage by half a second in spite of the stall, and securing the podium spot by 16.5 seconds.

Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud.
Photo by xpb.cc.
"I had a stall at the start which lost me lots of seconds and I was worried it was going to be very close," explained Henning. "I was driving as hard as I could on that last stage, I mean really pushing as hard as I ever have! The car was off the road more than it was on it!"

For Petter, piloting a works Subaru Impreza WRC, it was one of the best rallies in recent memory, and an epic Solberg-Solberg fight, even if he ended up on the losing side. And, with no hard feelings after the fight, he joined his brother for the third-place celebration on the hood of Henning's car at the finish.

"It was a shame that Henning got past me, but I'm still happy with this result in the circumstances," the 2003 WRC champion reflected. "We couldn't have gone any quicker. We have been very realistic about what we can achieve on this rally and we have followed our strategy accordingly. The main thing was for us to finish in the points and not make any mistakes."

The Subaru team has struggled through much of 2006 and 2007, and being in a straight fight for a podium position was an encouraging sign. With the strong finish in Norway and the impending debut of the Impreza WRC2007, the mood is improving as the team hopes to be in contention for both the drivers' and manufacturers' titles this year yet.

Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila.
Photo by xpb.cc.
Notably 89.6 seconds behind Petter was yet another Ford, driven by yet another Finn, this time the 20-year-old Jari-Matti Latvala in a second Stobart M-Sport Focus WRC. Latvala drove a strong event, setting the fast time on SS5 and keeping up with the pace of the Solbergs.

If it had not been for a 90-second penalty he incurred on Friday for not completing service on time, Latvala would have been in the thick of the fight for third place. But with the penalty on the books, Latvala focused on bringing his car home and scoring the points for Stobart M-Sport.

"There was no battle for us to worry about so we just made our own speed and concentrated on finishing the rally," Latvala explained. "Everything was working so well with the car this weekend I am very impressed with it. It was unfortunate to have the problems on Friday but I am still very happy because we had two difficult rallies at the start of the year, so it is good to finish up in fifth and get some points for the team and myself."

With the top five places locked down by Ford and Subaru, the fight for sixth place ended up being a Citroen-Mitsubishi affair on the final day. Manfred Stohl (OMV Kronos Citroen Xsara) was in the driver's seat to start the day, with Gigi Galli in a personally-entered Xsara some ten seconds adrift. Xavier Pons, in a 2005-spec Mitsubishi Lancer, held down eighth while the second OMV Kronos car, Daniel Carlsson, was some twenty seconds away from that final points-paying position.

There was no quarter given, as it all came down to the final pass through Eleverum. With both Galli and Stohl pushing hard, it was a question of whose risks would pay off and who would pay the price. In the event, it was Stohl who drew the short straw, getting stuck in a snowbank early in the stage.

Gigi Galli and Giovanni Bernacchini.
Photo by xpb.cc.
"We gave our all on Sunday," Stohl summed things up. "It's a fine line between success and retirement under these conditions. Galli had been only 12.7 seconds behind us prior to the last SS. I absolutely wanted to keep him on distance. Unfortunately this didn't work out."

The same pattern played out behind them, too. Carlsson was only 7.4 seconds adrift to start the stage, and had held a 12.5-second edge over Pons on the Mountain stage early in the day, so Pons had to give it his all if he were to ensure a championship point.

As things unfolded, with Stohl in a snowbank, Pons could have allowed Carlsson past and still scored a point himself -- but it was too late for the Spaniard, who had found his own snowbank already. With Stohl dropping 10 minutes on the stages as well, Carlsson was able to claim a comfortable seventh place in the end.

"We changed the set-up of the car from Saturday to Sunday and things went slightly better," the 30-year-old Swede explained. "To me that is a sign that we now get along better with the Citroen Xsara WRC and that the completed kilometres were not in vain. That we managed to overtake Pons in the end makes me very happy. Seventh overall place means that the rally had a conciliatory ending, after all."

Daniel Calsson and Denis Giraudet.
Photo by xpb.cc.
And the final point, then? Jan Kopecky, in the only Skoda Fabia WRC entry, took another point for the second time in three events -- an impressive performance for the tarmac specialist.

The point standings have Gronholm taking the lead three events into the season, with 24 points to Hirvonen's 20, and Loeb a further two points behind Hirvonen. On the manufacturers' side, Ford holds a 44-28 edge over Citroen.

With six consecutive gravel events coming up, the big question will be how well the new Citroen C4 will perform on gravel, where Ford's two Finns certainly feel at home. And, with Subaru's new car, will Petter Solberg be able to mix it up with Gronholm, Hirvonen and Loeb? Join us for our Rally Mexico coverage in three weeks' time to find out.

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