SWEDEN - BP Ford Abu Dhabi Team driver Mikko Hirvonen made a dream start to the 2010 FIA World Rally Championship by winning the opening round of the series, Rally Sweden.
Hirvonen, co-driven by Jarmo Lehtinen, took the lead on day one in his Focus RS WRC and then powered away from the rest of the field, finishing 42.3sec ahead of closest rival Sébastien Loeb.
Team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala capped a fine weekend for Ford by finishing third in his Focus. The double podium gives the BP Ford Abu Dhabi squad a 10-point lead at the top of the manufacturers' standings after the first of 13 rounds.
Hirvonen’s 12th career WRC win also moves Ford level at the top of the all-time standings with 74 WRC victories.
Rally Sweden is the only true winter rally in the series. Drivers tackled 21 speed tests covering 345.15km in the Värmland region of central Sweden. Temperatures plunged to -22ºC, but clear blue skies provided picture postcard scenery in the wintry forests.
Snow covered the tracks in the barren Scandinavian countryside, but beneath lay a softer than expected ice base. Exposed gravel poked through during the second pass over the roads and posed tough challenges for drivers, as they struggled to prevent stones ripping the tungsten-tipped studs from their tyres to leave little grip.
Hirvonen's tyre management played a crucial part in his victory.
"After losing the title last year by a point I knew I had to win more, rather than settle for consistent points finishes, so this is the ideal start," said 29 year-old Hirvonen. "It was a big win for us and I want many more this season. It's the first time I've won the opening round of the year. I tried to be more aggressive from the start in all aspects of my performance.”
He added: "It was such a hard rally for the tyres on the exposed gravel and you can't imagine how nervous I was driving the final stage. I have a year's more experience of a title battle than this time last year and I think that showed here. I need to continue in the same way for the rest of the season," he added.
Latvala, handed the role of supporting Hirvonen, did his job to perfection and recorded five stage wins during the three-day event.
"This result is a great boost to my confidence," he said. "I did what I was asked by keeping my consistency and it's a great start for the team.”
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 13th in the team's other Focus RS WRC. "I wanted to learn over the course of this rally, and I feel I have achieved this. I had little experience in these conditions, but as the rally progressed I have grown in confidence. There were some surprises on the stages, some tight corners and good action, but I enjoyed it," said Al Qassimi.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson hailed Hirvonen's victory:
"His drive on the second leg was by far his best performance in the way he managed both the day and, particularly, his tyres. He is putting his experience to good use. He has progressed steadily over the years to the point that he is now beating the world's best driver. Jari-Matti played the perfect support role to Mikko and I could not have imagined a better start to the season.”
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "It was important to get out of the starting blocks quickly this year and that's exactly what we achieved with a thoroughly professional performance from the whole team in the most arduous working conditions. We lead both championships and this victory puts Ford within one win of becoming the sport's most successful manufacturer."
The championship switches to gravel next month for the first of four rounds outside Europe. Rally Mexico is based in León on 4 - 7 March.
1. M Hirvonen (Ford Focus RS)
2. S Loeb (Citroen C4)
3. J-M Latvala (Ford Focus RS)
4. D Sordo (Citroen C4)
5. S Ogier (Citroen C4)
6. H Solberg (Ford Focus RS)
7. M Wilson (Ford Focus RS)
8. M Østberg (Subaru Impreza)
9. P Solberg (Citroen C4)
10 P-G Andersson (Skoda Fabia)
1. M Hirvonen - 25pts
2. S Loeb - 18pts
3. J-M Latvala - 15pts
4. D Sordo - 12pts
5. S Ogier - 10pts
6. H Solberg - 8pts
1. BP Ford Abu Dhabi - 40pts
2. Citroen Total - 30pts
3. Citroen Junior - 14pts
4. Stobart M-Sport Ford - 14pts