Finland - day 3: Home glory for Hirvonen
2 August 2009
BP Ford Abu Dhabi number one driver Mikko Hirvonen took his third win on the trot and his first on home soil today, when he brought his Focus RS WRC car to finish of the 2009 Neste Oil Rally Finland.
Hirvonen took the lead on the first 'proper' stage on Friday and whilst the battle with arch championship rival, Sebastien Loeb was tight - both winning four forest stages apiece on day 1 - he still finished the opening leg on top, 3.3 seconds in front.
On Saturday the fight continued, but this time Hirvonen seemed to have the edge, increasing his cushion to 10.9 seconds on the first loop thanks to three stage wins in a row. He then continued to push in the middle loop and was quickest in SS14 and SS15 to stretch the gap even more.
Himos 2 though was to be decisive as the Finn not only took another stage win, but with Loeb hitting a pot hole and picking up a front right puncture, he was 13.5 seconds quicker than the Frenchman.
With his lead doubled, Hirvonen eased his pace ever so slightly in SS16 and thus headed back to service 28 seconds ahead.
In the end following the final loop - and another stage win, his tenth in total on this year's 1000 Lakes, Hirvonen went into the last leg with over 30 seconds in hand.
Sunday was thus a bit of a formality and the 29-year-old could just pace himself through the four stages eventually winning by 25.1 seconds.
The result extends his lead in the battle for the 2009 WRC drivers' title, although it is still very tight with only three points between Hirvonen and Loeb heading to the next event in Australia at the start of September.
“I am really relieved and delighted!” said Hirvonen. “It is absolutely a great feeling! I have been watching this rally as a kid and now to win my home rally with a really great team behind me is just a dream come true."
"I was a spectator on this rally 31 years ago and now I cannot believe I have won it,” added Hirvonen's co-driver, Jarmo Lehtinen. “I am very close to tears."
Meanwhile Sebastien Loeb had to console himself with the runners-up spot in his Citroen C4 WRC.
The Frenchman blamed the puncture on SS15 for his failure to win, but interestingly the Citroen man was unable to beat Hirvonen in all but one of Saturday's stages, namely the final one, the 29.29 kilometre Vaarinmaja test.
"It had been one hell of a battle with Mikko, but he was really good and fast,” Loeb reflected. “When I had my puncture I knew it was over. But we have scored eight championship points so that is good for us."
Jari-Matti Latvala was next up and took a confidence boosting third, despite suffering with an upset stomach on Saturday.
After his late gaff last time out in Poland it was critical for the BP Ford Abu Dhabi #2 to get a solid result and having overhauled Dani Sordo for P3 in SS16, he never looked back. Indeed he set six fastest stage times in total and was more than 15 seconds ahead of the Spaniard at the finish.
“My god what a rally!” said Latvala, “To finish third here is absolutely fantastic, really great. It has been the hardest result to get with me being sick and then having to be fighting so hard with Dani, who has had his best Rally Finland. I am really very happy."
Sordo for his part was able to match Latvala and was right with him until the final loop on Saturday when he was reminded about the importance of finishing. As a result he eased off to ensure he took P4 and that meant Citroen's manufacturers' lead was cut by only three points.
"Fourth overall is very good but Jari-Matti was better in the end,” Sordo noted. “I am very happy with the car and the performance though. I know I can go faster but that would have meant taking risks. So for me to finish here really helps us in the manufacturers' championship."
Further down the order, Matti Rantanen held on to secure fifth on his 'guest' outing with the Munchi's Ford squad. Having impressed last year in Finland, he was again right on the pace and ran in the points' pretty much throughout.
Furthermore while he did come under pressure on the final day, he managed to narrowly hold off a late challenge from Sebastien Ogier, who was just 0.3 seconds behind after the final test.
“We have held onto our fifth overall by 0.3 of a second. Unbelievable! What a fantastic fight! I am really happy,” Rantanen said. “I would like to drive some more WRC events now but it depends on teams and sponsors."
Ogier was also pretty pleased, and as this was his first outing in Finland in a WRC car - and only his second run here in total - sixth was more than respectable for the 2008 Junior World Rally champion.
"It has been a very good rally for me and a fantastic fight with Matti,” noted the Citroen Junior Team man. “In this rally you need confidence in your car and your pace-notes."
Of the rest Jari Ketomaa and Britain's Matthew Wilson completed the points' scorers followed by Khalid Al Qassimi and Juho Hanninen, who dominated the Group N class in his Red Bull Rally Team Skoda Fabia S2000. Munchi's Federico Villagra and Anton Alen rounded out the top twelve.
"We take tenth position. We had no problem the whole weekend so a big thanks to the team,” Hanninen said. “I don't know about my next WRC event but this one was really enjoyable."
In the Junior World Rally Championship category, Martin Prokop led from start-to-finish and took a convincing victory in his Citroen C2 S1600, winning 12 of the 23 stages. The victory was also enough to give him the 2009 J-WRC title, with one round in hand.
"What a relief! 2009 JWRC champion! We are very happy and with a result like this is just the best feeling,” said Prokop. “We have worked so hard and now I am at the top of the list - fantastic. Thank you to my excellent team."
'Wildcard' Kalle Pinomaki secured the runners-up spot, 55.5 seconds adrift, followed by Suzuki's Michal Kosciuszko and Aaron Burkart. Mark Wallenwein was fifth with Simone Bertolotti sixth and Han Weijs Jr - the only other runner to finish in the JWRC - seventh.
“Third in Juniors is not bad here. Martin has done a great job all season. He has made no mistakes all season which is why he is champion, so congratulations to him," Kosciuszko added.
As for retirements there were a number of casualties, including Conrad Rautenbach, who crashed out in the penultimate stage today. He escaped unhurt as did his co-driver, Daniel Barritt.
Rautenbach's Citroen Junior team-mate, Evgeny Novikov also failed to finish, going off the road on day 1 and day 2, whilst engine problems stopped Citroen privateer Petter Solberg prior to SS14. Like Novikov, Petter had re-joined on day 2 under the SupeRally after crashing on Friday.
Ferrari F1 star, Kimi Raikkonen was another of the high profile names on the DNF list. Raikkonen's run came to an end on Saturday, when he went off the road in the leg's final test. He had put in an impressive performance though, and was running third in his class and 15th overall on his WRC debut.
Mads Ostberg, who had been in P7 overall, also crashed out in SS19, the 29.29 kilometre Vaarinmaja test - the longest of the event.
Stobart Ford's Henning Solberg was classified in 30th under the SupeRally after suspension problems stopped him early on Saturday. He had been running fifth prior to that.
The World Rally Championship now takes another break before resuming at the start of September when competitors head to Australia for the first time since 2006. The new-look Repco Rally Australia is on the east coast and is based in Kingscliff, New South Wales, running from 3-6 September.