Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen’s quest for a maiden FIA World Rally Championship title will go to a final round shootout after Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team claimed a double podium in Rally de España today. They finished second in a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car with team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila in third, ensuring the drivers’ crown will be decided in Britain next month.
The 31-year-old Finn’s title challenge was boosted when Latvala sacrificed second position shortly before the finish to ensure his team-mate maximised his points haul. Hirvonen will go to Britain eight points off the lead, with a maximum of 28 points available in the Welsh forests.
Rally de España was the longest round of the season with 406.52km of competition over three days and 18 speed tests in the hilly Tarragona region of north-east Spain. Friday’s opening day was predominantly gravel, before the team switched the Fiesta RS WRCs to asphalt specification for two days of sealed-surface action on smooth and flowing roads near the holiday resort of Salou.
Latvala led the opening leg until a spin in the dusty final special stage cost almost 45sec and dropped him to second. However, the 26-year-old Finn produced the best asphalt driving of his career over the final two days to keep the pressure on leader Sébastien Loeb. He won four stages, to add to two gravel wins on the opening day, before selflessly incurring a two minute penalty to aid Hirvonen.
Hirvonen settled into third in the opening leg after a cautious drive in frequently poor visibility. Despite feeling happy with both his driving and the set-up of the Fiesta RS WRC, he struggled for pace during the second leg. After modifying his driving style, his speed increased and he won a stage during today’s final leg, covering 102.62km, to be on hand to step up to second.
“It was a tough rally and initially I struggled for pace on the asphalt,” said Hirvonen. “However, I made some changes to the way I drove, my times improved and my confidence increased. It took me a long time to realise what I needed to do, but I finished with a good feeling and thanks to Jari-Matti’s great support, it means the championship is still wide open going to the final round.
“The asphalt rallies are behind me now and it will be an exciting finale in Britain in conditions that I like. I must win the rally but the destiny of the title is pretty much in my own hands and that’s a good feeling,” he added.
Latvala was delighted with his asphalt pace, which made him the fastest driver in yesterday’s second leg. “It was a fantastic weekend and great to be on the podium after my best performance in Spain. I’ll take plenty of positives away from the rally. I have so much confidence with the Fiesta on asphalt and I want to store up my asphalt speed and take it out of the bottle when I need it,” he said.
“I’m still annoyed about my spin on Friday when I lost the chance of victory. It was my mistake, and a painful one, but the conditions weren’t the same for everyone. However, the positives from this weekend far outweigh that one mistake,” he added.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 12th despite crashing into a tree in the opening leg. Al Qassimi blended caution with speed on his final rally of the season. The Abu Dhabi driver will miss the last round to fulfil commitments at the Formula 1 Grand Prix in his home country.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson praised a ‘fantastic team effort’. “Both drivers did what they needed to. Jari-Matti played a perfect team role and it was the best asphalt performance from him and the Fiesta RS WRC. Mikko was under huge pressure. He had to finish as far up the leaderboard as possible and he goes to Britain with a chance of the title,” he said.
“Today’s result was obviously overshadowed by the tragic death of Marco Simoncelli in the MotoGP race in Malaysia. Marco visited M-Sport just a few weeks ago to test a Fiesta RS WRC. His enthusiasm and delight at being in the car were clear for all to see and we are all extremely saddened at the news. Our sincere condolences go out to his family, friends and colleagues,” he added.
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: “Knowing that asphalt is not the favourite surface of our drivers, we came to Spain to take as many points as we could. With Mikko and Jari-Matti on the podium, we achieved that objective. I’m encouraged by the huge increase in asphalt performance from Jari-Matti and the Fiesta and I look forward to the title showdown in Wales in three weeks.”
News from other Ford teams
Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson finished sixth for the M-Sport Stobart Ford team to claim his best asphalt result, while team-mates Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor finished eighth, both in Fiesta RS WRCs. Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin retired from 10th in the team’s other car when they hit a barrier and ripped the front left wheel from the car. FERM Power Tools duo Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte were ninth, while Munchi’s Ford’s Federico Villagra / Diego Curletto were 16th, despite missing much of the pre-event recce due to flight delays in their native Argentina. Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino retired after crashing in the opening stage this morning.
The final round takes the Ford Abu Dhabi squad to Wales for Rally GB on 10 – 13 November. The rally is based in Builth Wells with the action taking place on fast gravel forest tracks.