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LEON -- BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team retained the lead of the Federation Internationale de L’Automobile World Rally Championship after a double points haul in Rally Mexico today.
Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished fourth on the demanding dirt roads in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, with team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila 27.6 seconds behind in fifth. The results mean Ford leads the manufacturers' standings by six points after two rounds of the 13-rally series.
Hirvonen and Latvala were first and third in the start order on Friday's opening leg and Hirvonen endured the worst of the conditions. The 29-year-old Finn, winner of the opening round in Sweden last month, ended the leg in sixth, one place behind Latvala. Better start positions yesterday offered the opportunity to climb the order and Hirvonen and Latvala were second and third fastest respectively in the leg. However, they did not regain as much time as was hoped and moved to fourth and fifth.
Today's final leg was short and consolidating their positions was the sole target for the Finnish pairings. Latvala deliberately slowed on the final countryside special stage to allow team leader Hirvonen, making his 100th WRC start, to move ahead and take extra points to aid his challenge for the drivers' title. They ended 27.6sec apart after 21 tests covering 347.55km.
"It was a difficult weekend and after winning in Sweden I hoped for a better result here," admitted Hirvonen. "I'm happy that we scored good points for the team, but I made too many mistakes with my driving. I never really found a good rhythm and I felt I couldn't push as hard as I wanted to. When I tried, the car ended up sliding wide and I dropped even more time. I tried lots of different things but I never really found the answer.
"I never had the pace to fight for the win, so taking all that into account, I have to be happy with a solid finish. It's important to keep the points ticking over so early in the season and that's what we ended up doing here," he added.
Latvala said he was disappointed not to challenge for a podium, but happy with the eventual outcome. "It's a second good finish for me this season, without mistakes, and that boosts my confidence for the next rally. My speed improved as the weekend went on. My car set-up was too soft initially but when we realised that, it was too late to retain the time we had lost. It was unfortunate we started the weekend with a soft set up after a wet pre-event test.
"I slowed about 500m before the end of the last proper stage to let Mikko move ahead of me. I'm the second driver and that's my job. It made no difference to the team's points tally and I was happy to help him," added Latvala.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said it had been 'one of the most difficult rallies for some time'. "We lost too much time on the first day but we don't know why. We need to find the reasons, and we will, but at the moment it's a bit confusing. There's a lot of work to do but we'll dig deep and come back fighting. Mikko couldn't find his confidence on the opening day when he was first on the road. Jari-Matti did a great job for the team, helping Mikko and finishing ahead of our rivals' second cars. That's exactly what we asked of him at the start of the season," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "We came to Mexico as championship leader and we go home still at the top of the standings. It was a tough weekend for us and the results weren't as good as we had hoped. But sometimes you have to scrap hard to earn a result and that's what we did here. To take away good points after a less than perfect weekend is a sign of our determination."
NEWS FROM OTHER FORD TEAMS
Stobart M-Sport Ford drivers Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor finished sixth in a Focus RS World Rally Car with team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin in 16th. Wilson restarted under SupeRally rules this morning after retiring yesterday when his car became stuck on rocks. Munchi's Ford duo Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc were seventh while Monster World Rally Team drivers Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino were 18th. Block also restarted under SupeRally rules today after sliding into a ditch and breaking the suspension of his Focus RS WRC yesterday.
Round three of the series takes the BP Ford Abu Dhabi squad to the Middle East for the Jordan Rally. It is based on the shores of the Dead Sea, near the capital city of Amman, on 31 March - 3 April.
Stage 19: 1. Ogier 19min 47.8sec; 2. P Solberg + 4.1; 3. Latvala + 6.1; 4. Sordo + 11.2; 5. Hirvonen + 16.2; 6. Loeb + 18.0.
Overall: 1. Loeb 3hr 28min 55.4sec; 2. Ogier + 40.2; 3. P Solberg + 41.6; 4. Latvala + 1:32.0; 5. Hirvonen + 1:58.1; 6. H Solberg + 2:45.8.
Stage 20: Cancelled
Stage 21: 1. P Solberg 10min 16.2sec; 2. Ogier + 0.8; 3. Sordo + 2.5; 4. Hirvonen + 3.9; 5. Loeb + 14.9; 6. H Solberg + 16.5; 9. Latvala + 56.5.
Overall: 1. Loeb 3hr 39min 26.5sec; 2. Ogier + 26.1; 3. P Solberg + 26.7; 4. Hirvonen + 1:47.1; 5. Latvala + 2:13.6; 6. H Solberg + 2:47.4.
Stage 22: 1. P Solberg 3min 12.7sec; 2. Sordo + 1.4; 3. Ogier + 1.7; 4. Loeb + 2.5; 5. Hirvonen + 2.9; 6. H Solberg + 3.1; 8. Latvala + 4.0.
Overall: 1. Loeb 3hr 42min 41.7sec; 2. P Solberg + 24.2; 3. Ogier + 25.3; 4. Hirvonen + 1:47.5; 5. Latvala + 2:15.1; 6. H Solberg + 2:48.0.