29 October 2006
Maiden win for Hirvonen 'down under'.
BP Ford number two driver, Mikko Hirvonen took his maiden win on the Rally Australia on Sunday, while Sebastien Loeb clinched the 2006 drivers' title despite being out injured.
Hirvonen took the lead on Friday, after Chris Atkinson crashed out in SS6. However Petter Solberg nipped in front in SS7, before Mikko took back the top spot on SS9. The Finn concluded the opening day with a solid 26.2 second advantage over 'Hollywood' and then paced himself through the second leg, watching the split times set by the Norwegian and then responding accordingly. Despite his careful strategic approach, the 26-year-old completed proceedings on Saturday having stretched his advantage slightly and going into the final leg enjoyed a 32.3 second cushion.
The final day went off without incident and he eventually brought his Focus WRC car to the finish 37.1 seconds up on 'Hollywood' – taking his first ever WRC win, Ford's sixth of the season and the Blue Oval's first 'down under'. Mikko will be the last person to win a WRC event in Western Australia for the foreseeable future as the round will move to the east coast in 2008, when the series' looks set to return for an event based around Queensland.
Mikko's win, combined with the fifth place finish of his team-mate, Marcus Gronholm, further strengthened BP Ford's hold on the manufacturers' title, doubling their advantage from eight points to 16, with two more events to run and a maximum 36 points up for grabs.
It was though a bit of a bitter-sweet event for the M-Sport-run outfit and especially for their number one driver, Gronholm. Gronholm needed to finish at least third to keep his slim hopes of taking the drivers' title alive, however an off on the first 'proper' test immediately put him on the back-foot, costing him over 10 minutes. Although Marcus charged back up the pack on Saturday and set five fastest stages times from a possible nine, he had conceded too much time in his off in SS3 and therefore had to settle for fifth position.
As a result, Sebastien Loeb has been crowned the 2006 drivers' champion and regardless of whether or not he returns for New Zealand and/or Britain, he will take his third drivers' title in succession. It was a welcome boost for Kronos Citroen, especially as they conceded further ground in the manufacturers'.
Xavier Pons was the best placed Kronos-run car at the finish, the Spaniard, who was driving Seb's #1 Citroen Xsara WRC, finished the first day 8.2 seconds up on Manfred Stohl and poised to take the final place on the rostrum. Pons though was unable to hold off the Austrian on Saturday and after losing third spot in SS13, dropped further and further behind. He eventually finished the event over 40 seconds adrift.
Stohl meanwhile was delighted to take third spot, and secure his second podium of the season. Manfred struggled a bit on day one, but as the event wore on he was happier with his OMV-branded Peugeot 307 and eased passed Pons early on Saturday and after that was never really threatened. His last podium finish was in Mexico back in March.
Petter Solberg, like Stohl, was chuffed with his finish. Indeed given the season to date for the Norwegian and the Subaru team, second was a big boost and bodes well for the remaining events of the season - and for 2007.
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