Stobart take points in Spain to set up strong season finale
Matthew Wilson and Henning Solberg set up the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team for a strong finish to the 2009 FIA World Rally Championship season at the team's home event, Rally GB, in three weeks time, earning another solid points-scoring finish at the Rallye de España. With both drivers improving on their performance from last year at the tricky Tarmac event, Wilson completed his ninth points-scoring finish of the year taking seventh place overall, while Solberg finished ninth, still contributing a manufacturer point for the team.
The Stobart crews were busy both in and out of the car before the rally got underway. Wilson took part in a short pre-event test prior to the recce, while both crews took time out from their heavy rally-week schedule to attend Rally Travel's annual charity auction to raise money for the Richard Burns Foundation. Thursday night saw the Ceremonial Start marked with a stunning fireworks display on the seafront in Salou.
But after that spectacular start, the rally itself was disappointingly damp as the action got underway on Friday morning, making the first day's stages even more challenging for the 70 starting crews. Made up of two passes over a three-stage loop based to the north of the PortAventura Rally HQ, at 131.76kms Day One was the longest of the rally.
An early brake problem lost Wilson time on the opening stage. But the Brit recovered well and maintained a steady pace throughout the day, getting to grips with the slippery conditions, particularly in the corners where gravel had been dragged onto the road by the early runners. He had moved up to seventh by the end of the day. Solberg, meanwhile, with no Tarmac preparation, struggled to find his rhythm, occupying a steady ninth place for much of the day until he slowed to avoid a dog in the road on SS6, which saw him slip behind the Ford Focus of Federico Villagra.
Day Two kicked off with the longest stage of the rally, the epic 38.27km El Priorat/La Ribera as the crews headed north-west of Rally HQ in Salou for two passes of a 63.99km loop. A varied mix of road conditions ensured a tough test for the drivers and the hard compound Pirelli PZero shod Focus RS WRCs.
Both Stobart crews benefited from a mistake by Evgeny Novikov on SS7 to move up one place. Wilson maintained the consistent pace that he had found on Day One to preserve his lead over Villagra. But Solberg continued to struggle on his least-favoured surface. Using the midday service to revert to some of the settings that he used on last year's edition of the rally he found his confidence on the afternoon loop. While other crews managed slower times on their second pass of the 8.6km SS11 Les Garrigues 2, Solberg took eight seconds off the mark he had posted in the morning and claimed impressive times on the closing stages of the day.
Unfortunately for the Norwegian, he could not sustain that form on Sunday morning, and his hopes of gaining a top-eight finish by overhauling Villagra's 20-second overnight lead faded quickly. But Wilson enjoyed the different nature of Sunday's stages to the west of Salou. Good pacenotes on the flowing roads allowed him to stretch his legs on the longer stages to maintain a comfortable seventh place; the first time that he has finished inside the points on one of the fastest and most demanding sealed-surface events on the calendar and equalling his best ever finish on Tarmac.
Other rally news
A one-two finish for Citroen saw them clinch the manufacturers' title taking an unassailable 21-point lead in the final rally of the year. Sebastien Loeb's victory moves him to within one point of Mikko Hirvonen leaving the title battle balanced on a knife edge. Dani Sordo put in a strong performance to finish second. But BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Hirvonen is still in control of the destination of the drivers' title securing third place despite a strong charge from a resurgent Petter Solberg in his Citroen C4. Equally impressive was Citroen Junior driver Sebastien Ogier who secured fifth place ahead of Jari-Matti Latvala.
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Matthew Wilson said:
"It's been a difficult rally. It's definitely one of the hardest Tarmac rallies as it is so fast and there are lots of cuts. We had a frustrating start on Friday, but it got much better as the weekend went on. This equals my best ever position on a Tarmac rally and it's my best result on this event. It's great to get some more points on an event where very few of the top drivers retired."
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Henning Solberg said:
"We knew this rally wasn't going to be easy but I've come away with more points for the team. I really concentrated on trying to improve my driving, to be neat and careful and try to find the right lines. It wasn't easy with no test and such a long time driving gravel rallies but we made some progress on Saturday which helped my confidence."
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team principal Malcolm Wilson said:
"It's been a solid team result on a rally which, similar to last year, has not seen much change in the overall positions. Matthew has improved on last year's result when he finished ninth and his consistency has been much better. Henning found it difficult, but he stuck at it and has continued to learn this weekend. I'm sure they are both looking forward to getting back on gravel at Rally GB where there will be a big fight for the rally and the championship."
Stobart Group CEO Andrew Tinkler said:
"It's good to see both of our cars finish with no problems and pick up more valuable points for the Stobart team. Both of the drivers have persevered on a tricky event and we are all looking forward to our home rally in the UK in a few weeks time."