Hirvonen misses world title by a point after tense finale in Wales
Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen's dream of a maiden FIA World Rally Championship title ended in disappointment today in Wales after a stirring final day battle. The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers missed the drivers' crown by just one point after finishing second in the Rally of Great Britain. A freak incident with the bonnet of their Focus RS World Rally Car on the penultimate speed test ended their challenge following one of the most exciting title races in recent years.
After more than 4040km of flat out driving across the globe, the destiny of the 2009 title came down to today's final 79.84km of competition in this 12th and final round. The Finns started the final day 30.2sec behind Sebastien Loeb in their head-to-head showdown. After several days of heavy rain, the gravel forest tracks in the Vale of Neath, near Cardiff, were treacherously muddy but Hirvonen threw caution to the wind in his attempt to overhaul the Frenchman and claim the title.
The 29-year-old edged closer to Loeb by winning the opening Port Talbot special stage and then gave himself a real chance by slashing more than 11sec from Loeb's advantage in the classic Rheola test. With just a repeat pass through those two stages remaining, the deficit was down to only 18.2sec. Hirvonen was again quicker than his rival through the early sections of the 17.41km Port Talbot test, before his chances evaporated shortly before the midpoint.
"The car landed after a jump and the left pin holding the bonnet came loose. The bonnet began to flap in the wind but the hinge on the right stayed attached. I couldn't see a thing and stopped to rip off the bonnet. It was such bad luck," he explained. Hirvonen started the final test only 0.9sec ahead of third-placed Dani Sordo but, despite his disappointment, he was again fastest to secure second by 1.0sec.
"I'm frustrated to lose by so little, but happy I was able to fight for the title with a six-time world champion until one stage from the end of the season. The year turned round for us in the second half and nobody will forget such an exciting end. After the first two stages this morning I thought I could do it, but the time I lost yesterday morning cost me in the end. I scored 11 podiums in 12 rounds, but I needed more wins. My challenge is to beat Loeb before he retires. I've learned a lot this year and I will come back stronger and better next year," added Hirvonen.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished seventh in another Focus RS WRC. After losing time on Friday's first leg, the 24-year-old Finn started today in eighth with his sights on a points finish. However, Latvala slid off the road and down a bank at the finish of the second stage in Rheola. Having already crossed the timing beam, he lost no time but his car was stuck. Spectators manhandled it back onto the road, but the suspension was damaged and he limped through the final two stages. His perseverance was rewarded as he claimed seventh when fifth-placed Sebastien Ogier crashed out.
"It was a character-building weekend," admitted Latvala. "I had some technical issues and made a mistake today. At a little jump right at the finish I ended up off the road. Thankfully the British fans are as good as the Finns and they got us back on the road quickly. My driving wasn't as good as I hoped here. I came here hoping to fight for victory but it wasn't to be. It was a hard season and now I want to forget rallying for a while, concentrate on other things and then get my mind ready for 2010."
Abu Dhabi's Khalid al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 20th in their Focus RS WRC after recovering from 54th following a first day retirement. "I am very pleased with our form over the past two days in Wales. We were unlucky with the problem with our driveshaft on Friday but we battled hard over the past few days in what are the hardest conditions I have driven in. It has been a long season -- we have performed well and improved a lot. It has been our best year yet and I'm really happy with our overall performance," said Al Qassimi.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was full of praise for Hirvonen's efforts. "He deserves enormous credit for fighting his way back into the championship battle with four consecutive wins when the title looked all but over in the summer. He missed out by just one point against possibly the best driver the sport has ever seen and he will leave here stronger for that. His consistency has been remarkable and he was the only top driver not to make a mistake this season. The way he has matured and stepped up his pace this season makes me look forward to 2010," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport boss Gerard Quinn said: "I would like to congratulate Sebastien on his world title. He and Mikko provided the championship with a thrilling battle and it's a shame there could only be one winner. We're disappointed for Mikko and Jarmo, but equally we're delighted at the progress they have made this season and the way they have taken the challenge to Loeb. Mikko will learn from this weekend and we're already looking forward to renewing rivalries again on the opening round of the 2010 season in Sweden in February."
News from other Ford teams
Stobart VK M-Sport drivers Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud finished fifth in their Focus RS WRC, 1min 18.0sec ahead of team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin. Steve Perez and Paul Spooner were 12th in the team's other car.