Rally wrap: Hirvonen lands thrilling victory
Mikko Hirvonen has got his 2011 World Rally Championship campaign off to a dream start with his second successive victory on Rally Sweden as the new World Rally Car era began in Scandinavia.
Hirvonen headed an all-Ford Fiesta RS WRC podium after five drivers had started the final day of the Karlstad-based snow rally covered by a little more than 15 seconds.
Norwegian Mads Ostberg took an impressive second overall, 6.5s adrift of Finn Hirvonen, whose team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala completed the podium. Sebsastien Ogier was the highest-placed Citroen DS3 WRC driver in fourth overall.
Ogier had dropped to fifth after nudging a snow bank on the penultimate stage but fought back to fourth by winning the WRC's inaugural Power Stage, which was shown live on television throughout the world and concluded the competitive action.
The stage win also earned the French ace three bonus world championship drivers' points. However, Ogier's recovery was eased when Petter Solberg's navigator Chris Patterson had to take the wheel of their Citroen DS3 for the final stage after Solberg was forced to surrender his licence to the local police following a speeding infringement on a public road earlier in the event. Having never driven the DS3 WRC before, Patterson was powerless to keep hold of fourth spot.
World champion Sebastien Loeb finished a distant sixth following a series of delays on Friday but his capture of two bonus points for finishing second on the Power Stage could yet prove decisive in his quest for an eighth world title.
Hirvonen's victory was his 13th at world championship level and makes him Ford's most successful driver in the series. "I was really nervous before the last stage but what a fantastic start from the team with the new car," said the 30-year-old. "The car has been quick straight away and after a tough season last year I am really pleased with this. But I am not taking this feeling any further. We've won here and now we need to move on to the next round in Mexico where it will be a different game. But I'm very happy with this and it couldn't be better to have a Ford one-two-three."
Ostberg, 23, took the lead on Friday's opening stage and drove without error to score his best WRC result to date alongside Swedish co-driver Jonas Andersson following a hugely impressive drive in his M-Sport Stobart Fiesta. "It's unbelievable," he said. "We have been fighting quite hard for the whole weekend and today has been difficult. I tried a little bit to catch Mikko but I didn't dare push as much as I could because he was quite quick. But I am absolutely very happy with this result."
Latvala moved into third place on the penultimate stage when Ogier brushed a snow bank and filled his Citroen's air filter with snow, starving the car's engine of vital power. Nevertheless Latvala's capture of the final podium spot was richly deserved after a strong showing, despite the Finn conceding he hadn't driven as well as he could have.
"I'm satisfied with the result but I have done so many mistakes during this rally," said Latvala. "I thought I wouldn't get on the podium this morning so to finally get here means I can breathe more easily tonight."
Ogier, who was taking part on Rally Sweden for only the second time, said: "This afternoon has been difficult for us. But we have some good points and now comes a lot of gravel rallies where, for sure, we will be faster. It's not a bad start to the season and winning the Power Stage means something good has come out of this weekend."
PG Andersson, who won Thursday's opening superspecial, recovered to seventh following time lost with a roll, a puncture and a powersteering fault during the course of the event.
Ex-Formula One world champion impressed in eighth overall in his ICE 1 Racing Citroen, with Briton Matthew Wilson ninth and Khalid Al Qassimi 10th in his Team Abu Dhabi Fiesta.
Dutchman Dennis Kuipers gave the FERM World Rally Team its first manufacturers' championship points in 13th overall with American Ken Block next up for the Monster World Rally Team in 14th spot.
The WRC heads west to Mexico next for round two of the series from 3-6 March.