Nancy Knapp Schilke, WRC Correspondent
First 1-2 finish for Ford team since May 2009; valuable points for Hirvonen
As expected since the first leg, Ford Abu Dhabi WRT took the top two spots on the Rally Australia podium. At the end of the first day, after both of the factory Citroen drivers crashed, this weekend’s World Rally Championship round became theirs to lose. Driving with precision and not losing sight of keeping their Ford Fiestas on the route, both Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala did their job. The two Finnish drivers worked as a team, along with challenging one another over the three days.
For Hirvonen and his navigator Jarmo Lehtinen, this victory in the 10th round this season moved them into second in the drivers’ standings. Sebastien Loeb is now only 15 points ahead of Hirvonen with three events remaining on the 2011 calendar.
A big thanks to Jari-Matti for what he has done.
“I do like this place it has been kind to us. But it's only because of a kind team that I have won. A big thanks to Jari-Matti for what he has done,” said Hirvonen. “I need to go away and continue on the pace if I want to win this Championship now."
Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished second, 14.7 seconds behind the winning duo. Yesterday, Hirvonen lost the lead as he swept the gravel route and today, the table was turned when Latvala was the sweeper but there were only six stages today and even though they traded stage wins, Latvala kept the overall lead. Being a team player and knowing Ford’s hopes for the championship are in the lap of Hirvonen, Latvala slowed near the finish of the penultimate stage to allow Hirvonen to take over the lead.
"I want to be in this team and we all work well together. I had a passion to win here, but I had to look at the bigger picture and this was the time to support Mikko. Yesterday morning was the key time in the rally. We punched in a series of fastest times and I knew then that we could both control the result," said Latvala. The Finn did end the day taking two extra valuable points of his own in the Power Stage by finishing second.
Hirvonen said, "At the start of the season we agreed to help each other, and Jari-Matti showed today what a team player he is. He had a great opportunity to win this rally but he gave it up to help me in my fight for the championship and I appreciate that. Two years ago I lost the world title by a single point, so every point counts.”
Privateer team owner and driver, Petter Solberg placed third. The Norwegian ran a consistent rally as he gave chase to the two Fords but never made a major mistake in his Citroen, which is not a surprise for the past WRC champion. Once he knew he was not going to catch the top two, he and Chris Patterson maintained their own pace to take the final podium step plus the single point for being third in the Power Stage.
"Very happy to be back on the podium. I have been waiting a long time for this but it's great for the team and it's good to be properly on the pace again,” said Solberg. “Thanks to the whole team this has been an excellent weekend!"
Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin finished fourth for the M-Sport Stobart team from the Ford camp. Their teammates were fourth at the start of the day they had rolled their Ford. Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor were okay and they did complete the rally, finishing 14th. The worst incident belonged to the team’s third car when Evgeny Novikov crashed his Ford heavily and ended up in the middle of the road. Both the Russian and co-driver Denis Giraudet were okay.
Citroen’s main factory team continued to make up ground after both cars had damage on Friday. In his comeback for manufacturer points by using the SuperRally allowance, Loeb took two stage wins today, including the three bonus points for winning the PowerStage at the end of the day. The Frenchman and Daniel Elena were not on the podium for the first time this year but they did finish tenth in their Citroen DS3.
Prior to the final finish, Loeb said, “On this Rally the team made a choice because now there is big pressure from Mikko because of our mistakes on Friday. I had a big push in there so let’s see what happens with the rest of the drivers to come through."
That comment was due to the fact that the Citroen team had Sebastien Ogier slow down to allow Loeb to move ahead of him. Loeb is the championship leader and after the crash – both drivers crashed on Friday – points are valuable as they end into the final events. Ogier summed it up by saying, “I have team orders and I respect it. I'm sorry I have no more comment."
Ford driver Khalid Al Qassimi and navigator Michael Orr earned their best WRC finish with a fifth under the Team Abu Dhabi banner this year.
Finishing sixth overall was Hayden Paddon and his co-driver John Kennard. Hailing from New Zealand, they also notched the 2011 FIA Production WRC title this year as they took first in their category today. “I can't believe it, it's incredible!” smiled the Kiwi.
“Rally Australia wasn't an easy rally at all for us, but we made it. Twelve months ago I was back home in New Zealand with no money, no sponsors and we didn't even think we would be able to do the PWRC. We found the sponsors, we found a car and a team and now we're here after a stunning year. And for sure there's still a lot to come. We'll try as hard as we can to come back next year in something bigger and better,” added Paddon.