AUSTRALIA - Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team claimed a dominant one-two finish in Rally Australia. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen won this 10th round of the FIA World Rally Championship by 14.7sec in a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car, ahead of fellow Finns Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila in a similar car.
It was the team's first double success since May 2009 in Italy and the result promoted Hirvonen to second in the drivers' standings, just 15 points from the lead with three rounds remaining. Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr claimed a career-best fifth in the team's other Fiesta RS WRC.
Overnight leader Latvala, whose own hopes of championship success vanished earlier in the season, was happy to support his team-mate's title bid. He went into the penultimate speed test with a 13.4sec advantage over 31-year-old Hirvonen, but slowed near the finish to allow him to move ahead.
Hirvonen was quick to pay tribute to his colleague. "At the start of the season we agreed to help each other, and Jari-Matti showed what a team player he is. He had a great opportunity to win this rally but he gave it up to help me in my fight for the championship and I appreciate that. Two years ago I lost the world title by a single point, so every point counts," he said.
Ford held the upper hand since midway through Friday's treacherously slippery rain-soaked opening leg near the east coast rally base of Coffs Harbour, midway between Sydney and Brisbane. Hirvonen headed Latvala after the first day, before Latvala took advantage of more favourable conditions on the rapidly drying gravel roads to move ahead on day two.
The 26-year-old started Sunday with a 22.7sec advantage and with no pressure from behind, he was able to control his pace to the finish after 26 special stages and 368.96km of predominantly dirt-road competition. Latvala claimed two bonus points after setting second fastest time on the final live TV Power Stage.
"My thanks go to the whole team," added Hirvonen, for whom this was a 14th WRC victory. "We've waited for this for a long time and I know we can continue to fight for wins and titles together. It's been a hard season and we've been under great pressure. We controlled the weekend well as a team and I'm delighted for Ford that we're returning home with a one-two."
Latvala reflected on a rally in which he displayed winning pace. "I know I had the speed to win here and that's good for my confidence, but I wanted to support Mikko. It's about attitude and how we handle it. Our challenge for the manufacturers' title suffered from my mistakes and this was my opportunity to pay something back. We have a good spirit inside Ford and you can't win without that.
"I want to be in this team and we all work well together. I had a passion to win here, but I had to look at the bigger picture and this was the time to support Mikko. Yesterday morning was the key time in the rally. We punched in a series of fastest times and I knew then that we could both control the result," he added.
Al Qassimi steered clear of trouble to exceed his targets. "This is a historic day for motorsport in Abu Dhabi," he said. "My plan was to be as close to the top five as possible and I more than met my expectations. I enjoyed a clear run in difficult conditions and mixed terrain. I was extremely nervous through the final few stages because I didn't want to push and risk losing my position, but it was a sensible and mature performance."
Ford paid tribute to the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks by carrying memorial stickers on its Fiesta RS WRCs today to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragic events in Washington and New York.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson admitted at the finish that he was relieved. "This was a terrific result for the team after a difficult season and it has put Mikko back in the title fight. We were convincing winners and it was a great effort from every individual in the team. Conditions on Friday were treacherous and Mikko and Jari-Matti were under huge pressure to lead from the front," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "The team has taken some hard knocks this season. But we've never given up and here in Australia we kept our cool in tricky circumstances to bring home a fantastic one-two result after so many near misses previously."
The championship returns to asphalt when Rallye de France takes place on 29 September - 2 October. The rally is based in the north-eastern city of Strasbourg, close to the German border.
1. M.Hirvonen – Ford Fiesta RS WRC
2. J-M Latvala – Ford Fiesta RS WRC
3. P.Solberg – Citroen DS3
4. M.Wilson – Ford Fiesta RS WRC
5. K Al Qassimi – Ford Fiesta RS WRC
6. H.Paddon – Subaru Impreza
7. M Kosciuszko – Mitsubishi Lancer
8. O.Saliuk – Mitsubishi Lancer
9. B.Guerra – Mitsubishi Lancer
10. S.Loeb – Citroen DS3