Hirvonen claims second in Australia after tense final day tussle Ford's Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished second in Rally Australia today to preserve their lead in the FIA World Rally Championship with two rounds remaining. The BP Ford...
Hirvonen claims second in Australia after tense final day tussle
Ford's Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished second in Rally Australia today to preserve their lead in the FIA World Rally Championship with two rounds remaining. The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team duo secured the runner-up spot by 4.6sec in a Focus RS World Rally Car after an exciting showdown through the final speed test to lead the drivers' table by one point. Team-mates and long-time rally leaders Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila were fifth in another Focus RS WRC.
This 10th round of the 12-event series was based on the east coast in northern New South Wales for the first time after 19 years in Western Australia. The action was based in the countryside south-west of the rally base in Kingscliff, on a mix of narrow and twisty gravel tracks which ventured into the rainforest, contrasting with blisteringly fast, wide and smooth roads. Drivers tackled 33 special stages covering 322.06km, mostly in dry and hot conditions but with a few showers during the opening day.
As championship leader, Hirvonen was first in the start order on the opening leg, unwillingly sweeping the loose gravel from the surface to leave a cleaner and faster line for those behind. Despite the disadvantage, he minimised the time loss to lie fifth. He climbed the order during the second day, which amazingly ended with the top three drivers covered by just one tenth of a second.
However, the 29-year-old Finn was forced to undertake the role of road sweeper again today. He could not prevent Sebastien Loeb edging away to a 12.5sec victory, but his battle with Dani Sordo was thrilling. They traded places five times in 10 stages close to Kyogle, before Hirvonen entered the final 22.41km speed test with a 2.1sec advantage, which he protected to secure second.
"It was a tough weekend, but one hell of a fight for victory," said Hirvonen. "I drove flat out from start to finish and the key factor in the final result was when I had to run first in the start order today. I felt trapped by that and if Loeb had been in that position rather than me, then the outcome could have been different. In the damp sections I matched his pace, but in the dry I couldn't hold him.
"I wanted to outscore him here but the championship is still wide open with just two rounds remaining in Spain and Britain. Before going to Spain I will take some training on asphalt and then test out there to be properly prepared," added Hirvonen.
Latvala enjoyed the benefit of favourable road conditions to lead for virtually all the opening leg, before he had to sweep the gravel yesterday. He bravely held off his challengers for much of the day before finally ceding the lead. He then slipped to fourth after damaging his car's right rear tyre when he slid into a bank and the impact pushed the tyre from the rim. In an identical incident this morning, 24-year-old Latvala dropped a further 50sec and the Finn had to settle for fifth.
"I made a fantastic start on Friday but the rally turned round on me on Saturday afternoon and today," he admitted. "Two mistakes that caused the tyre to come off the rim on each occasion cost me dearly, but who knows what may have happened without those errors? It didn't work out in the end and I'm disappointed, but also happy that my speed was good enough to lead for half the rally. It was more difficult to drive first through the stages then I thought it would be. There seemed to be more loose gravel than I remembered from the recce."
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 19th in the team's other Focus RS WRC. They retired on the first leg when they hit a tree stump and broke the car's steering but returned under SupeRally rules to complete the final two days.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said he was delighted Hirvonen had retained the championship lead. "Three drivers started the final day split by just 0.1sec, and that ensured the outcome was kept alive right until the final stage. There was a lot of pressure on Mikko and he paid the price of being first in the start order, and enduring the worst of the conditions, for two of the three days. That was a crucial factor and under those circumstances second was a great result," he said.
Ford motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "This was one of the most exciting rallies the championship has witnessed for some time. Five drivers were in the mix for victory initially, and any one of three could have won today. That excitement is transferred to the drivers' championship. Mikko holds a single point lead and it looks as if the outcome could go down the wire at the final round in Britain next month. Before that we journey to Spain and we have an expanded test scheduled there before the rally to be fully prepared for the challenges of the asphalt."
News from other Ford teams
Stobart VK M-Sport's Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin climbed to sixth in their Focus RS WRC, despite a puncture this morning. They edged ahead of team-mates Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud before the Norwegians spun and then dropped further time this afternoon with brake problems. They slipped into eighth, behind Munchi's Ford drivers Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc, but overhauled their fellow Focus RS WRC drivers on the final stage to take seventh.
The series returns to Europe next month for the penultimate round, and the second and final all-asphalt encounter of the season. Rally de España is based in Salou on 1 - 4 October.