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Hirvonen climbs into midst of world championship title battle

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, Ford Fiesta RS WRC, BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team
Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, Ford Fiesta RS WRC, BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team

Photo by: xpb.cc

Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen moved to within three points of the FIA World Rally Championship lead after a dramatic 11th round in France this weekend. The Finns finished fourth in Rallye de France in a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car, to set up a thrilling title battle with just three points covering three drivers, with two rounds remaining.

Team-mates and fellow countrymen Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished fifth in another Fiesta RS WRC. They showed the great team spirit within the Ford Abu Dhabi squad by sacrificing fourth place for themselves to boost Hirvonen’s points tally and help his quest for a maiden world title.

Strasbourg, capital of the Alsace region in north-east France, hosted the rally for a second year. Drivers tackled 23 speed tests covering 337.43km over asphalt roads in the Vosges mountains and the region’s vineyards, and two crowd-pleasing street tests in the towns of Mulhouse and Haguenau.

Temperatures climbed to 28ºC during the three-day rally, although low-early morning mercury levels ensured damp patches lingered under the trees in woodland area. The Ford drivers opted for a mixture of soft and hard compound Michelin Pilot Sport tyres, which delivered a strong performance in conditions ranging from clean asphalt to dirt and gravel-covered roads.

Hirvonen and Latvala both dropped time on the opening morning after sliding off the road. Hirvonen lost 50sec when he clipped a bank and the impact pulled the front left tyre off the wheel rim. Latvala slid wide onto a grassy area and became stuck, losing 80sec as spectators pushed his car back onto the road. They ended the day with Latvala in fifth and Hirvonen in sixth.

However, the focus of the team’s strategy switched from chasing outright results to concentrating on Hirvonen’s title hopes following the retirement of series leader Sébastien Loeb with a broken engine. It meant Hirvonen could propel himself back into the title fight with a solid points finish and the 31-year-old measured his pace and adopted a risk-free policy.

Latvala and Hirvonen climbed to fourth and fifth during the second leg, and maintained their positions during the final day until shortly before the final live TV Power Stage in Haguenau. Latvala checked into a regroup early, incurring a two minute penalty which allowed Hirvonen to move ahead and claim valuable extra points to reduce the gap from 15 points to three.

“Who would have thought four weeks ago we would be where we are now in the championship?” said Hirvonen. “The battle ended on Friday when I made a mistake and Loeb retired. After that I knew it was all about points, but it was difficult to find a rhythm because I was driving cautiously to finish. If I had made a mistake I would have looked silly, as my title challenge would have been over.

“I owe Jari-Matti a big thank you. Again he proved what a superb team player he is. There’s no more room for error over the final two rounds and it should be a great end to the championship,” he said.

Latvala won five of today’s six speed tests, and claimed maximum bonus points by winning the Power Stage. The 26-year-old was delighted with his pace on his least-favourite surface. “If I want to be a good asphalt driver, then I must learn and this is the day that I learned and raised my pace. We’ve made progress since the last asphalt round in Germany and I’m increasingly confident with the car.

“It was my best performance on asphalt. I made some mistakes and I wasn’t consistent enough, so I still I need to sustain pace and consistency for the whole rally, but it’s just about fine-tuning. I was hesitant on asphalt before but I’m not afraid of it any more. Being a Finn and being good on asphalt isn’t easy, but I’m getting better and better,” explained Latvala.

Abu Dhabi’s Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 13th in the team’s other Fiesta RS WRC. “It was hard to find my speed but this is my first asphalt rally for a year, my first asphalt rally in the Fiesta RS WRC and using Michelin’s tyres, so to finish is a good result,” said Al Qassimi.

Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was encouraged by the pace of the Fiesta RS WRC. “We didn’t get the result we wanted, but the real positive was Jari-Matti’s performance. We made some set-up changes after Germany which gave him confidence and he won seven stages. We leave here with Mikko just three points from the lead, and the title race is wide open again,” he said.

Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn was delighted with Latvala’s drive. “He did a superb job, dispelling any doubts about our asphalt pace, and for the second rally in succession helped put the team back in the title battle. This result has put a new perspective on the final two rallies in Spain and Britain, which we’re very much looking forward to,” he said.

News from other Ford teams

FERM Power Tools pair Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte claimed a career-best sixth in a Fiesta RS WRC. M-Sport Stobart Ford drivers Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor were seventh, with team-mates Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson one place behind. Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino were ninth, their best result of the season, with M-Sport Stobart Ford’s Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin in 11th and Evgeny Novikov / Denis Giraudet in 24th. Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk won the SWRC support category in a Ford Fiesta S2000, and the Estonians lie three points behind the leader with just one round remaining.

Next round

Rally de España is the penultimate round of the series and is based in Salou on 20 - 23 October. The rally is mixed surface, with a predominantly opening gravel leg followed by two days of asphalt.

UPDATE:

Hirvonen heads world title race after dramatic finale in France

Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are tied for the lead of the FIA World Rally Championship following a dramatic turn of events after the finish of Rallye de France today.

The Finns finished round 11 of the series in fourth place in a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car, to leave them just three points from the head of the championship. However, Petter Solberg was this evening excluded from third after his car was found to be under weight, promoting Ford’s 31-year-old Finnish driver onto the podium of the asphalt event.

The additional points mean Hirvonen is tied for the lead of the drivers’ championship with Sébastien Loeb, who retired from the rally in Friday’s opening leg with engine problems. Just three points cover the leading trio, with two rounds remaining in Spain later this month and in Britain next month.

“It’s unfortunate to inherit a position due to a rival’s misfortune, but at this stage of the season every point counts,” said Hirvonen. “We’ll go to the next round in Spain as joint leaders of the championship and with just two rounds remaining, the fight for the title is truly wide open. I aim to be on top form in Spain and an exciting conclusion to the year is in prospect. I can’t wait!”

Solberg’s exclusion promoted Ford Abu Dhabi’s Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila to fourth in another Fiesta RS World Rally Car. Latvala lies fourth in the points table.

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About this article
Series WRC
Drivers Alex Gelsomino , Petter Solberg , Sébastien Loeb , Jari-Matti Latvala , Mikko Hirvonen , Denis Giraudet , Malcolm Wilson , Jarmo Lehtinen , Miikka Anttila , Henning Solberg , Jonas Andersson , Ilka Minor , Matthew Wilson , Scott Martin , Ken Block , Michael Orr , Kuldar Sikk , Frédéric Miclotte , Evgeny Novikov , Ott Tanak , Dennis Kuipers
Teams M-Sport
Tags ford, france, hirvonen, latvala