Mikko Hirvonen finally took his maiden WRC win with Citroen on Rally Italia Sardegna this weekend.
Hirvonen put in a strong performance throughout the four days, although in the end it was a relatively easy victory for the former Ford man, as three of his key all rivals went out on the Friday, leaving him well placed to triumph.
Hirvonen pretty much matched team-mate, Sebastien Loeb, through the two opening tests on Thursday afternoon, and was just 1.1 seconds behind post-SS2. However the Frenchman took himself out of the equation in the first stage on Friday when he broke the steering on his DS3 WRC and retired. Ford works pair Jari-Matti Latvala and Petter Solberg also succumbed on the second day, with Latvala hitting a bank and damaging the radiator on his Fiesta in SS4, while 'Hollywood' went out in SS7 after hitting a rock. That left Hirvonen with a commanding lead of over a minute going into Saturday's third leg, when his biggest challenge was just keeping the concentration up and not making any mistakes.
He duly did it though, and with just the short 8.24 km Gallura test to negotiate on the Sunday, albeit ran twice, he eventually took the spoils by 1 minute 20.6 seconds.
It was a welcome result for Hirvonen and all the sweeter considering he only lost the win in Portugal back in February, when the stewards found irregularities with his Citroen DS3 WRC in post-event scrutineering.
The victory also ensures he will end the season second in the drivers' championship, the fourth time he has been vice-champion.
“It feels really, really good to win, I'm really happy,” Hirvonen remarked at the finish. “We've been second five times here and finally I got the win. I felt really good with the car, we pushed on Thursday and Friday and then we managed our advantage yesterday and this morning. It's a fantastic victory for the whole team and I look forward to doing the same in Spain now – I'll be flat out there.”
Behind, Evgeny Novikov took the runners-up spot for the M-Sport Ford WRT, equally what he managed in Portugal, although then of course he gained a place after Hirvonen's disqualification. The Russian posted top-six times in virtually all the stages - including going quickest in SS6, SS7 and SS10 – and was just over a minute up on his team-mate, Ott Tanak at the end.
“It was a long rally, with very tricky stages. We pushed where we could and then we managed and kept our position. It's fantastic [to get second place], I'm very happy,” he said.
Tanak meanwhile was equally pleased with third, especially as he lost quite a significant chunk of time on the Thursday after opting for the wrong tyres: “I'm really happy to take my first WRC podium,” he noted. “It was a perfect weekend. I'm so pleased for the team as well. They've done an incredible job during the whole season.”
Mads Ostberg was next up and fourth in his Adapta WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC. The Norwegian looked set for a podium early on, but a rear differential failure on the repeat loop on Friday dropped him back. He fought back though on Saturday, winning four of the day's six stages and in the processing hauled himself back up the leaderboard.
VW Motorsport man Sebastien Ogier beat Chris Atkinson to fifth, the Aussie's challenge fading in the final stage when he picked up a puncture and lost over a minute in his WRC MINI Team Portugal John Cooper Works WRC car. The two had been separated by just 5.3 seconds ahead of the second-run through Gallura.
Ogier was delighted to take P5 in his Skoda Fabia S2000 and the fact he set the pace in SS5 on Friday – the first time in WRC history a S2000 car has been quickest overall in a test – was another reason for cheer.
“It was a perfect weekend and we got the perfect result. I'm very happy to give it to the team also as a boost of confidence in preparation for next year [when we will use the Polo R WRC]. We were probably helped by our start position and because we saved tyres with the S2000. It was good fun in the car though and we had a very good drive,” said the Frenchman.
Further back, Andreas Mikkelsen was seventh in the sister VW Motorsport-run Skoda Fabia S2000, albeit 50 seconds off P6 and almost double that off Ogier.
Of the rest, Martin Prokop came in eighth, with Solberg ninth, having rejoined on Saturday under the Rally 2 regulations. The Norwegian was bitterly disappointed with his mistake on the Friday, and while he was quickest in the Power Stage that wasn't much consolation, especially given a victory could have been on the cards: “I'm sad for Malcolm and Ford. I failed and that's the hard part,” Solberg admitted. “I always want to do my best and this time I got it wrong, which is quite frustrating. I want to go to Spain now and win for the team.”
Luca Pedersoli rounded out the top ten and took the final WRC drivers' point on his first outing at the top-level in over a decade: “It's amazing, I take home one WRC drivers' point which is great. This was our target coming into the event so I can say it is mission accomplished. It's unbelievable. It was a tough race but we made no mistakes and I'm very, very happy. It wasn't easy as every corner is so difficult here and it's easy to make a mistake and go off. I hope to be back soon, maybe in 2013,” he noted.
Giuseppe Dettori ended up just outside the top ten in eleventh in his Skoda Fabia S2000, while Latvala, Thierry Neuville and Paulo Nobre were 12th, 18th and 19th respectively, all taking advantage of the Rally 2 rules to get to the end.
In the PWRC, Nicolas Fuchs took the victory, despite brakes issues and two punctures. Marcos Ligato was second, 30.4 seconds back, while Valeriy Gorban completed the Production class podium.
The WRC now moves to Spain next for the season finale, with that event running from November 8-11.
To view the result for the 2012 Rally Italia Sardegna - CLICK HERE