Ford World Rally Team's Jari-Matti Latvala has won Rally Sweden after a good scrap with his former team-mate Mikko Hirvonen.
Latvala, who had suffered the bitter disappointment of crashing out in Monte Carlo last month in the early stages, was determined to make amends this weekend and he stamped his authority on proceedings from the off by setting the top time on Thursday in the WRC's first-ever qualifying stage.
Having elected to start 17th on the road and after having finished seventh in the short opening Karlstad Super Special on Thursday night, Latvala took the lead initially on Friday morning, before being overhauled by Hirvonen.
Going into the second loop, Jari-Matti was 2.9 seconds adrift, but he fought back and gained considerable ground in SS9, eventually finishing the opening day with a 16.8 second advantage.
On Saturday, the battle of the Finns continued, with Latvala stretching his lead ever so slightly to 18.6 seconds in the morning. In the afternoon, the 26-year-old pushed on extending his advantage to 23 seconds.
This morning he continued to charge, winning another two stages and increasing his cushion to 35.6 seconds. That would prove critical in the final loop too as a puncture in SS22 cost him over 20 seconds. Despite that scare though, Latvala did enough and eventually took the victory by 16.6 seconds. It was his second win in Sweden – and the sixth of his WRC career – and kicks start his title bid after the DNF on round one. It was also the 50th win for the Ford and M-Sport partnership.
“This is really special,” Latvala said at the finish. “I won here four years ago and it is fantastic to win here again, it is a great feeling. There was a lot of pressure after Monte Carlo and I felt it coming here. This has taken a lot of the pressure out of the coming event.
“We have a lot of work to do, but we want to really fight. I think we are really going to challenge Citroen this year.”
Hirvonen meanwhile put in a strong drive on only his second WRC event with the Citroen DS3 WRC car and won five stages. Unfortunately for him though, he didn't quite have enough pace to challenge Latvala and while he did keep his fellow countryman honest, he gradually slipped further and further back: “I learned a lot this weekend,” said Hirvonen. “This result is not too bad. I wanted to win, but Jari-Matti was very strong.”
Behind, Mads Ostberg repeated his Rally Sweden rostrum result from 2011, getting ahead of Petter Solberg in SS22, when the Ford WRT man lost time with a puncture. Ostberg had closed to within 4.9 seconds off 'Hollywood' this morning and at the finish was more than 30 seconds in front.
“I am very happy. It has been a great weekend. I am so pleased to have won the fight with Petter,” Ostberg commented.
“The puncture was very disappointing,” Solberg added, “but I am still happy for Jari-Matti and the team.”
Evgeny Novikov completed the top-five and the Russian put in a good performance in his M-Sport Ford WRT-run Fiesta RS WRC, eventually finishing up just 13.7 seconds ahead of Sebastien Loeb: “I'm very happy to finish with fifth. I had a good fight with Loeb today and yesterday afternoon,” he stated. “I have to improve now and try to finish on the podium.”
Loeb had a pretty poor event by his standards, picking up a 10 second penalty early on Friday when he left service late and then getting stuck in a snow bank in SS7, which cost the Frenchman almost 2 minutes. After that it was always going to be about damage limitation and despite a spin on Saturday morning and a puncture in the afternoon, he fought his way back up to P6.
He also took the Power Stage win too, which was some consolation, as he takes the maximum three bonus points: “I tried to push in the final stage. It was not much worse than the first pass. I had to try. It [my run through the Power Stage] was better than the rest of the weekend,” Loeb commented.
Henning Solberg trailed the Frenchman home in seventh in his Go Fast Energy WRT Fiesta. He slipped behind Loeb on Saturday's repeat loop and after that was powerless to stay with him, the gap growing to almost a minute by the end of SS24.
Patrik Sandell took eighth and was the lead MINI John Cooper Works WRC car at the finish. Sandell put in a fine performance throughout the three-days, setting 18 top-ten times in total.
“It is great to finish the rally. I tried to go as fast as I could. Overall it has been a perfect weekend for me - absolutely fantastic. I really like the car and I am really happy,” said the 2006 JWRC champion.
Martin Prokop and Eyvind Brynildsen rounded out the top ten, both in Fiesta RS WRC cars and leaving Ford with an impressive 1-3-4-5-7-9-10 sweep.
Of the rest, Volkswagen Motorsport's Sebastien Ogier was the top S2000 car in eleventh, although as he is not registered for the SWRC, P-G Andersson took the class victory there and was 14th overall behind Thierry Neuville and Andreas Mikkelsen.
In terms of retirements, Sweden took four notable scalps - namely MINI's Dani Sordo and Jari Ketomaa, who both went out on day one, while today Ott Tanak and Rally 2 runner Paulo Nobre were sidelined with just two stages to go. Tanak had engine problems, while Nobre went off the road again.
The 2012 World Rally Championship now goes to Mexico next, with that event running from March 8-11.
To view the result for the 2012 Rally Sweden - CLICK HERE