ARGENTINA - Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished second in Rally Argentina after a thrilling three-car battle for victory through the final speed test. The Finns missed the top step of the podium by just 2.3sec in their Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car in one of the closest finishes in FIA World Rally Championship history.
Only three rallies have produced a closer finale than this sixth round of the season, fought out in the hills of Cordoba province, 700km north-west of Buenos Aires. Just 7.2sec covered the top three drivers after 380.21km of competition over a mix of rocky gravel tracks and smooth asphalt.
The result keeps Hirvonen in second place in the drivers' championship. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila remain fourth in the standings after finishing seventh in another Fiesta RS WRC. Latvala was involved in the closest finish in WRC history just two rallies ago in Jordan when 0.2sec split the leading cars. Ford Abu Dhabi remains second in the manufacturers' points.
Hirvonen ended the opening leg in fourth and climbed to second on Saturday to start the final day 43.7sec from the lead. When leader Sébastien Ogier rolled on the opening special stage and broke his car's power steering, the fight for victory became a three-car battle between Ogier, Hirvonen and Sébastien Loeb.
Ford's 30-year-old Finn entered the final 3.90km test in third, with just 5.7sec covering the trio. He was second fastest to climb to second, claiming two bonus championship points for his performance on the live television Power Stage.
"I made a couple of small mistakes at the start of the stage and things were so close that I knew then that victory wasn't going to be mine," said Hirvonen. "Second was a good result after a hard weekend, which was a strange one also. I struggled on the asphalt sections and better driving there could have given me the win. I'm annoyed to lose by such a small margin, but the bonus points from the Power Stage were a boost.
"We received presents from some drivers and gave our own presents away to others. I fought hard and it was a great ending to the event. I love this rally because the gravel roads are fantastic and there are so many fans alongside the road that it's a great feeling. Second place brings good points, but I need to start winning rallies to improve my chances of lifting the championship," he added.
Latvala dominated Friday's opening leg, winning four stages to build a 18.2sec lead. The 26-year-old Finn retained his advantage through most of yesterday, only to retire when he hit a rock and broke his car's front left suspension link. The damage was too great to repair and he restarted today in eighth, after incurring penalties for not completing the final two stages. He climbed one position to seventh.
"It was a big disappointment to lose the lead on Saturday," he said. "It was a frustrating weekend because I hoped for much more from the final result. I had good pace on both the asphalt and the gravel sections. But sometimes my gravel speed was inconsistent. When I pushed too hard to find extra speed I slid sideways and lost time, so I need to drive more smoothly.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was pleased with the pace-setting speed of the Fiesta RS WRC. "It was another stunning performance from the car but sadly we're not on the top step of the podium. Jari-Matti had the rally under control before damaging his suspension on a rock. Mikko produced a brave fightback after a difficult day yesterday and was rewarded with second. The car's asphalt performance was strong and it's encouraging for the sealed surface events later in the year," said Wilson.
Gerard Quinn, Ford of Europe motorsport chief, said: "A podium is always a good result, bringing strong points in both the manufacturers' and drivers' championships. But I'm disappointed we're not going home with more than second place. Jari-Matti had the pace to win before damaging his car and a slightly stronger performance from Mikko during the opening two days could have delivered a win."
The first half of the season ends with the Acropolis Rally of Greece, one of the WRC's classic rounds. The gravel event is based in Loutraki on 16 - 19 June.
1. S Loeb/D Elena Citroen
2. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen Ford Fiesta
3. S Ogier/J Ingrassia Citroen DS3 4hr 04min 04.2sec
4. P Solberg/C Patterson Citroen DS3
5. M Østberg/J Andersson Ford Fiesta RS
6. F Villagra/J Perez Companc Ford Fiesta RS
7. J-M Latvala/M Anttila Ford Fiesta RS
8. M Wilson/S Martin Ford Fiesta RS
9. H Paddon/J Kennard Subaru Impreza
10 P Flodin/M Andersson Subaru Impreza