Japanese joy as Hirvonen and Latvala claim 1-2 for Ford
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team claimed a magnificent one-two result with the record-breaking Focus RS World Rally Car in Rally Japan today. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen led from the opening speed test on Friday morning to take their third victory of the FIA World Rally Championship season. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila completed the team's domination of the 14th and penultimate round of the series by finishing second, 31.1sec behind their fellow countrymen.
It was the squad's third formation finish of the season following one-two triumphs in Sweden and Turkey. The result also means the battle for the manufacturers' title, which Ford is hoping to clinch for a third consecutive year, will go to the final round in Great Britain next month. The team is 11 points behind the leaders with a maximum 18 at stake.
Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, hosted the rally which had a new base at the ultra-modern Sapporo Dome sports stadium. The bulk of the action took place over gravel forest roads east and south of the city, which varied from twisty and narrow tracks on the opening day to wider and faster roads during the final two legs. Four special stages were cancelled during the three-day event as a result of snow, which caused roads to deteriorate to an unsafe level, and an accident.
Conditions throughout were extremely demanding. Pre-event rain and snow meant the soft surface quickly cut up to leave massive ruts. Torrential rain today ensured standing water and aquaplaning were a constant hazard, as well as ice patches after a cold night. After the cancellations drivers tackled 25 stages covering 310.61km.
Hirvonen powered into the lead on the opening stage and was never headed. The 28-year-old built up a comfortable advantage over Latvala during Friday's opening leg. With no pressure from behind, Ford's Finns continued to dominate during the second day and maintained their positions during today's treacherous conditions. Hirvonen won 11 stages to secure his third win of the campaign while 23-year-old Latvala claimed three victories en route to his first podium since June.
"I'm delighted with the win but at the same time disappointed that my hopes of the drivers' title are over," said Hirvonen. "We did all we could but it wasn't enough to prevent Sebastien Loeb winning the title, which he richly deserves, and I congratulate him. Conditions were so changeable that it was a difficult and nervewracking weekend and I never had the luxury of being able to ease off. I didn't want to take risks in the wet weather today. I was aquaplaning many times and had several lucky escapes.
"Although the drivers' championship is out of reach we will go to the final round with the manufacturers' title still possible and my thoughts will now focus on that," he added.
Latvala was delighted to score a podium for the first time since Rally of Turkey. "It feels fantastic to take a top three finish on gravel again. After a bad August this is my third strong rally and I really wanted this result. The conditions were probably the worst I've seen and I can't explain how much water there was in the forests. We seemed to be aquaplaning all the time," he said.
"The difficult rallies really suit the Focus RS WRC, which is incredibly strong. We've had no problems during the weekend and when you have to attack in the rough and tough conditions then it's encouraging to know that the car excels on that type of road," added Latvala.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson described the outcome as a 'dream team result'. "It has been a difficult weekend for all of us involved with the Ford team after the injuries to Patrick Pivato on Friday. Full credit to both drivers for delivering incredible performances in what were probably the most changeable road conditions we've seen on a rally. It keeps our championship hopes alive and the same top three on the final round would give us the crown again," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport director Mark Deans said: "To see a Ford 1-2 in such an arduous event is a tribute to man and machine. The team worked tirelessly to bring the result we needed and will send us to Rally GB with a chance to wrestle a third consecutive world manufacturers' title. We vowed to fight right to the end of the season and that positive attitude has put us back into contention for the crown."
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Third place was sufficient for Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) to become the first driver to win five world titles, despite a spin on the penultimate stage. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) claimed fourth. Per-Gunnar Andersson (Suzuki) climbed two places to take fifth, ahead of team-mate Toni Gardemeister, who also overhauled Stobart driver Matthew Wilson (Ford). Petter Solberg (Subaru) took the final points' position, despite breaking an exhaust manifold this morning and incurring a 30sec penalty.
The season closes with the traditional final round in Britain next month. The all-gravel Rally GB is based in Cardiff on 4 - 7 December.