Jordan - day 3: First win of year for Hirvonen
27 April 2008
After failing to grab a win on the opening four rounds, BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen made amends on Sunday by claiming the honours on the inaugural WRC event in Jordan.
Mikko left it until the final day though to grab the top spot and on Friday he had what he described as one of the 'luckiest escapes ever', when he went off the road in the second stage, the 20 kilometre-run through Mahes 1.
Despite that scare however, he stayed in touch with the front runners and was fourth at the end of the opening day, 13.4 seconds off Citroen's Dani Sordo, who had led from the start.
On Saturday, Mikko maintained his tactical approach, in order to avoid running first on the road on day 3. Initially it looked as if it might not work, with Sebastien Loeb grabbing P1 and pulling out a 30-odd second cushion after three stage wins in succession in SS9, SS10 and SS11.
However when the Frenchman went out after a head-on collision with Conrad Rautenbach on the road leading to and from Shuna 1, the 27-year-old's plan was back on track.
Indeed Mikko and his team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala both overhauled Dani Sordo on the repeat loop in the afternoon and were running 1-2, until they purposely eased off in the final stage.
That 'gifted' Sordo the lead once again and meant he would have to play the road sweeper for the second day in succession - a tactic that gave both Ford's a more advantageous road position for the final leg.
Initially on Sunday Latvala took the lead, but when he hit a rock in SS18 and damaged his suspension he was left to limp through that test and SS19, and lost over 10 minutes. Mikko thus moved up into P1 and he was 5.4 seconds up on Sordo after Wadi Shuelb 1.
Hirvonen then proceeded to stretch the gap further in SS19 and returned to service G, 7.7 seconds ahead, before taking more time on the repeat loop and eventually taking the victory by over a minute.
The result puts him back top in the drivers' championship, as Loeb failed to score drivers' points.
"My strategy paid off but I was nervous in the final stage," he reflected. "No split times were available for Sordo and I didn't know how hard he was pushing.
"I really needed these 10 points and this is a great result for my championship challenge. I need to keep my feet on the ground however and continue trying to find more speed and more wins."
Sordo meanwhile wasn't too disheartened with the runners-up spot and he certainly gave his all on the final day to try and take 'gold', with an off in the final stage, which cost him 30 seconds, definite evidence of that.
"I was fully aware this morning that the cards weren't stacked in our favour, but I tried to put that to the back of my mind and push as hard as possible. I did all I could to recover the lead but it wasn't enough," he noted.
"Even so, I am pleased with our performance this weekend. We led on two occasions and I was delighted with my feeling at the wheel of the Citroën C4 WRC from start to finish. I'm sure the experience will come in useful on the forthcoming events."
Subaru's Chris Atkinson completes the rostrum, after another very solid performance. There were no heroics from the Aussie, but he settled into a steady and consistent pace and was justly rewarded with his third podium on the trot and his fourth of the season.
Granted he only got the spot after other people hit problems and granted he finished around 5 minutes off the top two, but still he had every right to be pleased and he was.
"We've still got a lot of work to do and we want to be more competitive on pace and pushing for wins, but four podiums from five rallies is a very consistent start for us so with that I'm happy," he noted.
Further down the order Stobart Ford duo Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson came in fourth and fifth, with the latter losing out to his team-mate when he clipped a bridge parapet on the final stage this morning and punctured the rear left tyre. The Englishman had to stop and replace it, losing two minutes and fourth place.
"We were slightly disappointed this morning when the puncture cost us a lot of time but in the end we remained focused and now we have finished fifth which I am really happy with on this new and difficult event," said Matt.
"My fitness has played a key part and has helped a lot with my concentration and performance on the stages. This was a hard rally but this finish is now our best result so far this year."
Munchi's Ford WRT's Federico Villagra completed the top six, 40 seconds or so further back, while Latvala recovered from his problems in SS18 and took two points for seventh.
Of the rest Gigi Galli took the final drivers' point, having re-started under the SupeRally on day 2 after problems in SS6, while BP Ford Abu Dhabi 'third' driver Khalid Al-Qassimi had to settle for ninth.
While it was Al-Qassimi's best ever finish in the WRC, he was still disappointed, as he was running comfortably in seventh, until he lost around 8 minutes with two punctures in the final test, which dropped him out of the points.
Sebastien Loeb rounded out the top ten, having restarted under the SupeRally. The Frenchman took the final manufacturers' point, although that was little consolation, as he looked set for victory until that incident with Rautenbach.
"It really is an enormous shame [what happened on Saturday]: we were in a good position with regard to both championships, but this is only the fifth round of the season and such a lot that can still happen," he noted philosophically.
In the FIA Junior World Rally Championship category, Sebastien Ogier took the victory, just like he did on round 1 in Mexico.
Patrik Sandell had been leading but when the Swede crashed in SS17, Ogier made the most of it and in the end won by just over 5 minutes. He wouldn't have needed Sandell to have problems too, if he had not been slowed by a puncture on day 1. Indeed Ogier set the JWRC pace in 16 out of the 22 stages and further marked himself out as a real star in the making.
Shaun Gallagher took the runners-up spot, in another Citroen C2 S1600, while Renault's Gilles Schammel was third, followed by Florian Niegel and Stefano Albertini.
In terms of retirements a number of drivers' failed to make it to the finish, most noticeably Suzuki WRT duo Toni Gardemeister and Per-Gunnar Andersson, as well as Subaru's Petter Solberg and Urmo Aava.
Gardemeister went out on the first day after a stone hit the bottom of his car and damaged the sump. He could not SupeRally. P-G also went out on day 1, going off the road in the first stage. Although he rejoined, he retired again on day 3, when he again crashed out.
Petter Solberg was another to crash out, with brake problems in the final stage on Saturday. He had also gone out on day 1 when he hit a rock and damaged the suspension on his Impreza. He did not re-start on day 3.
Urmo Aava also suffered after hitting a rock and damaging the suspension on his privately entered Citroen C4 WRC. He had been running solidly in the points and around 5th-6th throughout until the second stage on Sunday morning.
The FIA World Rally Championship now heads back to Europe next month and the next stop is Sardinia for the Rally d'Italia, another gravel event, which runs from May 15-18.