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Turkey - day 3: Tactical win for Hirvonen

15 June 2008

Mikko Hirvonen took a strategic victory on the Rally of Turkey this weekend to put himself back top in the drivers' championship heading into the six-week summer break.

Hirvonen had led for pretty much all of the opening leg in his Ford Focus RS WRC07, despite not winning a single stage, until he deliberately eased off before the finish of SS9 - the final test on Friday - and watched almost 20 seconds pass before completing the test.

That dropped him to fifth on the leaderboard, but more importantly it meant he would benefit from better road conditions on day two and avoid losing time having to sweep away the slippery loose gravel.

While not entirely uncontroversial - the same tactic was also employed by his team-mate, Jari-Matti Latvala and fellow Ford runner, Gigi Galli, and it left Sebastien Loeb once again playing the 'road sweeper'.

Hirvonen exploited his advantage perfectly on leg two and immediately hauled himself back into the lead on the first loop, winning SS10 and SS11, to give himself a 2.9 second lead. He then increased his cushion four-fold in the middle loop, before gaining more time in the final three stages. He finally finished day two around 16 seconds up on Latvala - and almost 35 seconds up on Loeb.

Sunday however was not a formality and now it was Mikko's turned to play the cleaner. Despite losing 7.5 seconds on the first stage, when he stalled at the start, the Finn took 5.2 seconds back in SS18 and that 12.7 second advantage was enough to give him the win - his second of the season.

Hirvonen eventually triumphed by 7.9 seconds following a nail-biting final test and he now has a three point lead going into his home event - the Rally Finland in August.

"I promised Malcolm Wilson I would lead the championship going into my home rally in Finland next month and I am. It was the right moment for a win because we struggled on the last round in Greece and this is perfect timing. It feels very special to beat a four-time world champion in a straight fight," reflected the 27-year-old, who felt ill throughout the rally and was unable to eat.

"Our tactics worked so well and I didn't panic this morning when I was first on the road and had to sweep the stages. This is my best result because it was such a big team effort. It looks like it will be an exciting championship battle in the second half of the season."

Latvala meanwhile took the runners-up spot and while he tried to beat Hirvonen in the end he had to settle for 'silver'. Jari still enjoyed a very strong event though, especially as this was only his second outing on the Kemer-based round.

Like Mikko he notched up four stage wins, ending the event on a high by setting the pace in the final test. He now moves up to third in the drivers' championship, 3 points ahead of Chris Atkinson and 22 points off Loeb.

The BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT also extends its lead over Citroen in the manufacturers', following Hirvonen and Latvala's one-two finish - the first time this year the M-Sport squad has managed to lock out the top two places - taking the gap up from two points to nine.

"I came here wanting a top three finish so I'm pleased I was able to fight for victory," said Jari. "I lacked experience of these roads but that wasn't as big a disadvantage as I thought. We played good tactics and it was a big risk, but a good decision. I've learned to keep my driving tidy. I was kind on my tyres for the first half of the final stage and that paid off. This has given a major boost to my confidence."

Loeb for his part was third at the finish and while not happy to have to play the 'road sweeper', he conceded at the end of Friday's leg that had he been in the same position as the Fords, he would have done the same.

Despite being disadvantaged by his road position, Seb still set some very good times though and he was the only driver to win five tests - albeit two coming on the short Antalya super specials.

"I cannot say I'm happy about finishing third and I'm no more pleased to have conceded the lead in the Drivers' Championship. For three days we have tried everything. We often exceeded our limits, using every bit of the car's potential and that of the Pirelli tyres," said Seb.

"Except maybe for New Zealand, we should no longer have to worry about the problem of 'road-sweeping' for any of the seven rallies that remain, and that can only be a good thing."

Further down the order Dani Sordo was fourth, overhauling the Stobart Ford Focus of Henning Solberg on the final day. Dani slipped back from fifth to eighth on Friday with a left rear puncture, but despite picking up another one on day two, he hauled himself back up to take 5 points.

"I am very happy that we did it," said the Citroen #2. "At the end of this difficult weekend, this result is good for me. Our C4 was competitive and we put in some good stage performances. I forced myself to take care of my tyres and I think we made further progress in driving on the loose."

Henning was also pleased, even if he did lose out to Sordo. The Norwegian ended day 1 in second - after Hirvonen, Latvala and Galli slowed - but he wasn't as comfortable on days two and three after his mechanics had to fit a new gearbox.

"I'm very, very happy; fifth place here is great. It's been a tough rally and we have had to manage the tyres well for the whole time. The first day felt great and it was a good feeling to set a fastest time. Then we had to make some changes to the car and the feeling just wasn't as good as the first day," he explained. "But we kept the pace up and got into an exciting battle with Dani Sordo on the last day."

Further down the order Henning's brother Petter was sixth, 14.5 seconds further back in the new Impreza WRC2008. 'Hollywood' ran in the points throughout and while he never looked likely to repeat the rostrum result he managed in Greece two weeks ago, he still set some pretty good times - including eleven top-six efforts.

"This weekend has not been bad at all, no real problems," he reflected. "On lots of stages we've had fastest splits and been faster than anyone else which is very good. The car is very reliable, and it's been a difficult past two rallies but the engineers have learned a lot and have a very good strategy plan. The guys know exactly where to work on the car now so I think it will be no problem to find a lot more in this car."

Britain's Matthew Wilson took two points for seventh in the third Stobart Ford entry, even though he was suffering from a cold for much of the event and didn't feel 100 per cent, while Conrad Rautenbach was eighth in his privately entered Citroen C4 WRC.

Munchi's Ford duo Federico Villagra and Barry Clark completed the top ten, the latter getting the final manufacturers' point on his first 'proper' event in a World Rally Car. Barry opted to take it neat and tidy and was happy with his weekend, even if he did have a few scares in the final stage.

Of the other WRC drivers, Chris Atkinson was 13th, having re-joined under the SupeRally on Saturday. Atkinson went out on day 1 after damaging the suspension on his Impreza WRC2008 in SS6.

Toni Gardemeister and Per-Gunnar Andersson failed to finish in their SX4 WRCs, retiring early on day two with mechanical problems. Neither re-started on Sunday, so the Suzuki WRT had a premature end to the event.

Stobart Ford's Gigi Galli also finished earlier than planned, having to pull out before Sunday's action got underway due to exhaustion and dehydration. The Italian was advised not to continue by the team's doctor.

In the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship category Andreas Aigner came through to take a convincing win - his third in succession. Andreas beat Patrik Sandell by over a minute, after the Swede lost time late on Saturday with a driveshaft failure.

Mirco Baldacci was third, 2 minutes further back, followed by Martin Rauam and Armindo Araujo, who rounded out the top five and gave Mitsubishi a 1-3-4-5 finish. Evgeniy Vertunov was the top Subaru runner in sixth, with Simone Campedelli and Giorgio Bacco rounding out the PWRC points' scorers.

The FIA World Rally Championship now takes a six-week break, before resuming with the Neste Oil Rally Finland, one of the year's classic events, which runs from August 1-3.


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