Mikko Hirvonen survived Rally de Portugat to take his debut win with the Citroen Total World Rally Team, only to have it taken away hours after the finish when scrutineers found illegal parts on his DS3 WRC. The decision hands the victory to Ford privateer Mads Ostberg.
Hirvonen inherited the lead on Friday morning following a dramatic start to the event, which got underway on Thursday and saw his team-mate, Sebastien Loeb, get caught out in SS3, the second night stage and the second 'proper' test of the event.
However the next day brought more drama and with heavy rain, thick fog and mud making the stages treacherous, both works Fords hit trouble. Overnight leader Jari-Matti Latvala was the first to go off and get stuck in a ditch in SS5 and on the next stage, his team-mate, Petter Solberg also made a mistake and had to retire from the leg. That left Hirvonen 36.3 seconds up on Ostberg at the end of day two, as organisers opted to cancel the repeat loop on safety grounds.
On Saturday, with conditions improved, Hirvonen pulled further and further ahead and he went into the final leg with a 1 minute 12.1 second cushion. That advantage meant he could continue to take it easy today and he eventually took the victory by almost 2 minutes - although interestingly he didn't take a single stage win throughout the four days (and neither did Citroen). The result moved Mikko to the top of the drivers' championship and put him 9 points ahead of Loeb. His joy though, was short lived and following post-event scrutineering the Finn was stripped of the position. The official scrutineering report said that Hirvonen's clutch was 'not in conformity with the Homologation Form A5733', and that was not the only irregularity found during the usual post-event checks, although the stewards decided to make further investigations to determine whether then #2 car's turbo also failed the regulations.
Citroen initially announced it would appeal the decision, before abandoning it a few days later: "As further analysis of the matter and discussions with experts did not uncover any new technical elements that might have been used to alter the harsh penalty handed out by the Stewards, Citroen decided not to pursue what would have been a long and costly procedure," Citroen explained.
“Obviously, I am very disappointed but I am not annoyed. These things happen. You have to accept them when they do, learn the necessary lessons and go again. Citroen has done a lot for me in the last few months so I stand united with the team at this difficult time. We win together, and we lose together!” Hirvonen added. “This incident just makes me even more determined. I can't wait to start the next rally and go competing again.”
Ostberg thus wins his first ever WRC event in his Adapta World Rally Team-run Ford Fiesta RS WRC. He was pleased with his performance over the four days, but added he feels for Hirvonen.
“Of course, we are very happy with the win, but it is not the way we wanted to take it and I am very disappointed for Mikko as he did a fantastic job all weekend," he admitted magnanimously, "But we had a really good rally ourselves and we will definitely be celebrating our 'second' place."
Evgeny Novikov meanwhile came through to claim what turned out to be second, also in a semi-privately run Ford Fiesta RS WRC. The M-Sport Ford WRT man had a scare on the final loop when he had a problem with his throttle cable. However he hung on to take his best ever result in the WRC.
“I have been waiting for this moment for a very long time, and I am really very happy that we could achieve such a strong result," Novikov enthused afterwards, “We had a scary moment on SS21 when the throttle pedal came off completely and we could only fix it on the road section. But we did so, using cable-ties and some tape!
“This really is an incredible achievement for me. I am very happy but to discover it is second place [and not third], it is the maximum we could have hoped for. Obviously, I am very sorry for Mikko, as he had a very good rally, but both Denis [Giraudet – my co-driver] and I have been waiting for this moment for a very long time and it has been an amazing weekend for us both.”
Behind, Petter Solberg came back from his error on Friday in SS6 to take the final place on the podium. Solberg re-started under the Rally 2 regulations on Saturday and hauled himself up from 13th to 5th. He then claimed another position on the final day, eventually finishing just 22.4 seconds off Novikov. In total Petter posted eight stage wins - the most of any driver, as Dani Sordo took 6 and Latvala 4.
“Nobody likes to see the results settled in the officials' room and I feel sorry for Mikko and Jarmo [Lehtinen],” said Solberg. “But tonight's events mean I'm now only four points from the lead of the championship and Ford has made a big leap forwards in the manufacturers' standings. I can't wait for the next round in Argentina!”
Nasser Al-Attiyah was fourth for the Qatar World Rally Team. Al-Attiyah dropped behind Martin Prokop on the penultimate stage, but made up time in the Power Stage to reclaim the position from the Czech driver: “It's fantastic to get this place,” said Al-Attiyah. “I went flat out and took a lot of chances and a lot of risks. With all the water [in SS22] it's a fantastic result. It's a good feeling.”
Further back, Dennis Kuipers was sixth with Volkswagen Motorsport man, Sebastien Ogier seventh in his Skoda Fabia S2000, 21.7 seconds adrift.
Thierry Neuville, like Petter, retired on day two, but came back under the Rally 2 regulations and scored points. He suffered two punctures on the final loop, but limped back to service to securing what ended up being P8.
Jari Ketomaa and Peter van Merksteijn Jr took the final points' paying positions, the latter slipping down to P10 after he lost time in SS21 when his driveshaft broke.
Of the rest, Dani Sordo took eleventh for the Prodrive WRC Team, showing good pace in his MINI John Cooper Works WRC car. His overall position though was compromised after the lead to his alternator broke on Thursday night, forcing him to skip SS3 and SS4. He finished the event on a high, however, by claiming the Power Stage win, although admittedly he did get a helping hand from 'Mother Nature', as conditions deteriorated after his run.
Daniel Oliveria, Latvala, Ott Tanak and Armindo Araujo filled positions 12 through to 15, with SWRC winner, Hayden Paddon 16th. Paddon took the class win, despite retiring on day two. Yazeed Al-Rajhi had been set for the SWRC victory, but he had to stop this morning in SS18 due to suspension damage.
Patrik Sandell was another notable retiree today, rolling his Prodrive WRC Team MINI in the penultimate stage. He had been running well down the field though, after hitting a tree on Saturday and breaking his suspension.
In the Academy class, which finished on Saturday after SS13, Alistair Fisher took the win, 40.3 seconds up on Brendan Reeves. Pontus Tidemand was third.
The WRC now heads to Argentina next, with that event running from April 26-29.
To view the result for the 2012 Rally de Portugal - CLICK HERE