Jari-Matti Latvala completed a comfortable victory in the Acropolis Rally this afternoon, 10 years after his debut drive in a World Rally Car in this event.
It was the Finn’s maiden win in a Volkswagen Polo R and came after a difficult start to the 2013 campaign for Latvala, who joined the German squad this year.
He finished the 306.53km three-day rally 1min 50.0sec clear of Dani Sordo in a Citroen DS3, with Thierry Neuville claiming a second career podium a further 24.1sec behind in a Ford Fiesta RS.
In 2003 Latvala became the youngest driver to pilot a works car when he drove a Ford Focus RS on the Greek rally at just 18. Since then he has won seven WRC events for Ford, before clinching his eighth success today for Volkswagen.
“It feels amazing. It was a tough start to the season and this was an important moment. It’s 10 years ago since I drove my first rally in a World Rally Car and it has taken me all that time to win here. Yesterday I wasn’t thinking about winning, but this morning I thought about it a lot, especially in the last stage,” said Latvala.
He was downbeat after a poor qualifying gave him a bad start position for Friday’s opening leg. However, he ended the day in third and moved to the front yesterday morning when leader Evgeny Novikov hit a bank and broke a wheel, gradually building his lead thereafter.
Sordo staked his claim for second in the opening stage and was never ousted. The Spaniard refused to become drawn into the short, but fierce battle between Latvala and Novikov, measuring his pace over the rock-strewn gravel roads which make this the toughest round of the FIA Rally Championship.
“After all the problems I’ve had in other rallies this year, this one was so good and it will give me a lot of confidence,” said Sordo.
Like Sordo, Neuville maintained a consistent pace and third was the perfect birthday present for girlfriend Jessica.
“We had a good strategy and the others made mistakes. We had a good clean run yesterday and no problems today. I thought we had a puncture after 5km of the final stage so I slowed, but it was OK and we continued to push,” said the Belgian.
Andreas Mikkelsen claimed a career-best fourth on only his third rally in a Polo R. Brake problems and a puncture hindered him in his battle with Nasser Al-Attiyah, but the Norwegian overhauled the Qatari’s Fiesta RS three stages from the finish and came home 17.5sec clear.
It was a tough weekend for some of the championship’s star names. Mads Ostberg was sixth after losing over three minutes in the first stage when he smashed a wheel against a concrete kerb.
Mikko Hirvonen took eighth after a steering problem in the same test cost almost six minutes, and championship leader Sebastien Ogier was 10th after his hopes ended in that grueling opening stage with fuel pressure problems in his Polo R.
However, the Frenchman took maximum bonus points after winning the final Power Stage and leaves Greece with a 52 point championship lead over Latvala. Sebastien Loeb is six points further back in third.
WRC 2: Kubica bags first World Championship win
Robert Kubica has taken his first win in the World Championship by securing victory in the WRC 2 class of the Acropolis Rally - the roughest round of the season.
Kubica dominated the WRC 2 competition in Greece. He took the lead on Friday’s opening stage and went fastest on the first nine tests to pull more than two minutes clear of the chasing pack.
He later switched to a more cautious approach, avoiding trouble on the rocky gravel stages to secure a maximum 25 championship points.
“Finally, after a disappointing period with my mistakes and car failure, today is a great day,” said the Pole. “I think the best thing is that I learned a lot here. These are completely opposite conditions to what I’ve been used to for the last 20 years.
“Coming here and driving in a good way, managing to keep the car on the road without damage is already an achievement. Winning is even more.
“But there is a long way to go. I know I have to learn a lot and for sure the next rallies will improve me even more. There is still long way to go before I get to the level I want to reach.”
On his first rally in the Fiesta RRC, Ukrainian Protasov held off a final day challenge from Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari to take 18 points for the runner-up spot. “I pushed all the time through. I’ve really enjoyed it,” he said.
Al-Kuwari, from Qatar, consoled himself with a 15-point haul for third that keeps him in the lead of the WRC 2 championship.
“We tried our best but we couldn’t make back the time we lost earlier,” the Fiesta RRC driver explained. “It’s okay, 15 points is not bad. We came here wanting top three and we got that - we are happy.”
Subhan Aksa began Sunday’s competition fourth, but the Indonesian retired in SS11 when he went off the road. This handed the position to Ukraine’s Oleksii Tamrazov who finished 5min 30sec behind Al-Kuwari.
A delighted Rashid Al Ketbi was fifth, the Skoda Fabia S2000 driver snatching the position from Nicolas Fuchs, the production category winner, who got a puncture on the final stage.
Arman Smailov finished seventh, 1min 19sec behind Fuchs, with Valeriy Gorban eighth, 3min 37sec further back.