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STRASBOURG, France - Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen moved to within three points of the FIA World Rally Championship lead after a dramatic 11th round in France at the weekend.
The Finns finished fourth in Rallye de France in a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car, to set up a thrilling title battle with just three points covering three drivers, with two rounds remaining.
Team-mates and fellow countrymen Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished fifth in another Fiesta RS WRC. They showed the great team spirit within the Ford Abu Dhabi squad by sacrificing fourth place for themselves to boost Hirvonen’s points tally and help his quest for a maiden world title.
Strasbourg, capital of the Alsace region in north-east France, hosted the rally for a second year. Drivers tackled 23 speed tests covering 337.43km over asphalt roads in the Vosges mountains and the region’s vineyards, and two crowd-pleasing street tests in the towns of Mulhouse and Haguenau.
Temperatures climbed to 28ºC during the three-day rally, although low-early morning mercury levels ensured damp patches lingered under the trees in woodland area. The Ford drivers opted for a mixture of soft and hard compound Michelin Pilot Sport tyres, which delivered a strong performance in conditions ranging from clean asphalt to dirt and gravel-covered roads.
Hirvonen and Latvala both dropped time on the opening morning after sliding off the road. Hirvonen lost 50sec when he clipped a bank and the impact pulled the front left tyre off the wheel rim. Latvala slid wide onto a grassy area and became stuck, losing 80sec as spectators pushed his car back onto the road. They ended the day with Latvala in fifth and Hirvonen in sixth.
However, the focus of the team’s strategy switched from chasing outright results to concentrating on Hirvonen’s title hopes following the retirement of series leader Sébastien Loeb with a broken engine. It meant Hirvonen could propel himself back into the title fight with a solid points finish and the 31-year-old measured his pace and adopted a risk-free policy.
Latvala and Hirvonen climbed to fourth and fifth during the second leg, and maintained their positions during the final day until shortly before the final live TV Power Stage in Haguenau. Latvala checked into a regroup early, incurring a two minute penalty which allowed Hirvonen to move ahead and claim valuable extra points to reduce the gap from 15 points to three.
“Who would have thought four weeks ago we would be where we are now in the championship?” said Hirvonen. “The battle ended on Friday when I made a mistake and Loeb retired. After that I knew it was all about points, but it was difficult to find a rhythm because I was driving cautiously to finish. If I had made a mistake I would have looked silly, as my title challenge would have been over.
“I owe Jari-Matti a big thank you. Again he proved what a superb team player he is. There’s no more room for error over the final two rounds and it should be a great end to the championship,” he said.
Latvala won five of today’s six speed tests, and claimed maximum bonus points by winning the Power Stage. The 26-year-old was delighted with his pace on his least-favourite surface. “If I want to be a good asphalt driver, then I must learn and this is the day that I learned and raised my pace. We’ve made progress since the last asphalt round in Germany and I’m increasingly confident with the car.
“It was my best performance on asphalt. I made some mistakes and I wasn’t consistent enough, so I still I need to sustain pace and consistency for the whole rally, but it’s just about fine-tuning. I was hesitant on asphalt before but I’m not afraid of it any more. Being a Finn and being good on asphalt isn’t easy, but I’m getting better and better,” explained Latvala.
Abu Dhabi’s Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 13th in the team’s other Fiesta RS WRC. “It was hard to find my speed but this is my first asphalt rally for a year, my first asphalt rally in the Fiesta RS WRC and using Michelin’s tyres, so to finish is a good result,” said Al Qassimi.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was encouraged by the pace of the Fiesta RS WRC. “We didn’t get the result we wanted, but the real positive was Jari-Matti’s performance. We made some set-up changes after Germany which gave him confidence and he won seven stages. We leave here with Mikko just three points from the lead, and the title race is wide open again,” he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn was delighted with Latvala’s drive. “He did a superb job, dispelling any doubts about our asphalt pace, and for the second rally in succession helped put the team back in the title battle. This result has put a new perspective on the final two rallies in Spain and Britain, which we’re very much looking forward to,” he said.
1. S Ogier/J Ingrassia Citroen DS3
2. D Sordo/C Del Barrio Mini John Cooper
3. P Solberg/C Patterson Citroen DS3
4. M Hirvonen/J Ford Fiesta RS
5. J-M Latvala/M Anttila Ford Fiesta RS
6. D Kuipers/F Miclotte Ford Fiesta RS
7. H Solberg/I Minor Ford Fiesta RS
8. M Østberg/J Andersson Ford Fiesta RS
9. K Block/A Ford Fiesta RS
10 P Campana/S De Castelli Mini John Cooper
1. S Loeb 196pts
2= M Hirvonen 193pts
2= S Ogier 193pts
4. J-M Latvala 129pts
5. P Solberg 125pts
6. M Østberg 60pts
1. Citroen Total 372pts
2. Ford Abu Dhabi 312pts
3. M-Sport Stobart Ford 129pts
4. Petter Solberg 116pts
5= Munchi's Ford 32pts
5= Team Abu Dhabi 32pts
5= FERM Power Tools 32pts