Latvala second for Ford in Britain as Hirvonen creates history
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished second on Wales Rally GB today after a titanic final day battle. The Finns led for most of this 15th and final round of the FIA World Rally Championship in their Focus RS World Rally Car. However, their slender lead disappeared during a thrilling final loop of competition that ended with just 12.7sec splitting Ford's rising young star and established master Sebastien Loeb.
Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished eighth in their Focus RS WRC and created a slice of history. The single point ensured they became the first drivers ever to score points on every round of the championship. This remarkable achievement added to Ford's record-breaking season. The Blue Oval became the first manufacturer in history to score points on 100 consecutive rounds in Turkey in July and Latvala became the youngest driver to win a WRC round in Sweden in February.
Treacherous conditions in the forests of mid and south Wales made this one of the hardest rallies of the season. Ice and snow forced organisers to cancel much of Friday's opening leg and wintery conditions continued to provide a stern challenge throughout the weekend. The scheduled 348.99km route was reduced to 275.01km as two of the 19 speed tests were cancelled and four others shortened.
Latvala moved to the front on Friday afternoon and withstood a fierce challenge from Loeb during yesterday's second leg. They started today split by just 7.3sec and that was reduced to 1.4sec after the first of two identical loops of two special stages in the Vale of Neath. Loeb incurred a 10sec penalty for a jump start on the penultimate stage and the final test began with Latvala leading by 2.2sec. However, the 23-year-old 'young pretender' could not hold off the Frenchman and the margin at the finish was 2.7sec, later increased to 12.7sec when Loeb's penalty was removed.
"I couldn't have driven that final stage any quicker," said Latvala. "I told myself I would be either first or second, and not waiting in the forest for a trailer to come and collect the wreckage. I'm disappointed but this is my best finish in Britain and the battle has made me mentally stronger. I now feel ready to start next season and fight for the title. I need to be better than the best because it's the winner who is remembered, not the driver who finishes second.
"The roads were frozen solid today and the grip changed all the time. It was hard to find a rhythm and I hit a bank on the opening stage. I took quite a few risks this morning and at times it was a scary drive," added Latvala, who won five tests and finished fourth in the championship.
Hirvonen spent most of the weekend recovering from a near-four minute time loss after rolling his Focus RS WRC on Friday. The 28-year-old, already assured of second in the championship before the start, climbed back into a points position this morning to seal his place in the record books.
"There was more ice than yesterday and when the sun came up it polished the surface. I had two or three close escapes but that's acceptable in these unpredictable conditions. I want to thank the whole team for helping me to second in the championship. I've had no major mechanical problems this season thanks to such a reliable car and the team has done a fantastic job. To claim this scoring record is a great achievement and I want to move into next year and challenge for the title again. I feel stronger after this season and more ready to fight for the world title again," said Hirvonen.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 16th in another Focus RS WRC. "Just finishing this event feels like a victory! This is without doubt the hardest WRC event I have ever taken part in. Just finding the necessary grip to feel confident in the car was near impossible and it means a lot to me to have reached the finish," said Al Qassimi.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said: "It was an incredible performance by Jari-Matti against a five-time world champion. He was under severe pressure and he's made a big step in his career path with a performance that is good for his confidence. Mikko recovered well and has enjoyed a fantastic year. It's a great achievement to score points on every rally."
Ford of Europe motorsport director Mark Deans added: "We're disappointed not to win a third consecutive manufacturers' title after taking the battle down to the final round. But the Focus RS WRC proved its ability once more here with five cars in the top 10, and we look forward to renewing our challenge for title again in 2009."
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Victory for Sebastien Loeb (Citroen), his 11th of the season, and third for team-mate Dani Sordo gave the French squad the manufacturers' title. Petter Solberg (Subaru) claimed fourth while fifth for Per-Gunnar Andersson (Suzuki) equalled his team's best result. Stobart driver Francois Duval (Ford) claimed sixth after team-mate Henning Solberg retired with broken suspension in the penultimate test.