Hirvonen bags fourth for Ford in Portugal
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team's Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished fourth in Rally de Portugal after a thrilling three-car battle for the final podium place.
After three days of flat-out driving in the hills above the Algarve coastline, the fight for third in this sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship was only decided on the final 2km speed test inside Faro's soccer stadium on Sunday afternoon.
The Finns had settled for fifth in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car heading into the test, which featured two cars at-a-time racing around a purpose-built track and was broadcast live on Portuguese television.
However, when fourth-placed Petter Solberg went off the road in the previous heat and lost 15 seconds, 29-year-old Hirvonen measured his pace in the following duel and climbed to fourth after 18 stages covering 355.32km.
This rally was played out in high temperatures over demanding gravel roads near the holiday resort of Faro. The heat and the abrasive bedrock, which forms the base of the roads in this area, made it a tough challenge for tyres. Drivers had to skilfully manage tyre wear on their Pirelli Scorpion rubber to ensure they retained as much grip as possible towards the end of the long loops of special stages.
Hirvonen ended Friday's opening leg in fourth but ceded a position the leaderboard the following day. The 29-year-old began the final leg as one of three cars chasing the final step on the podium, with less than 22sec covering the trio.
He slashed that gap to less than eight seconds on the opening speed test and the trio began the final country stage covered by just 7.4sec. However, Hirvonen's attacking driving took its toll on his tyres and he realised halfway through that he could not close the gap further. He eased his pace and settled for fifth before the excitement inside the stadium.
"What an amazing end to the rally," he said. "After all the drama on the final stage during the last round in New Zealand, I can't believe that it has happened again here. I couldn't have driven any faster this morning. I gave everything to try to catch the two guys ahead but my rear tyres lost their grip and midway through the stage I called off the attack. I knew I couldn't reach them. It was a difficult rally. I didn't have the pace this weekend to challenge for the win and the rally was tough on tyres.
"I tried a different approach this weekend. I was less aggressive, letting my driving flow rather than pushing too much. I thought my driving was good and the car handled well, but the times weren't fast enough. The result wasn't good from a championship point of view but we've done six rallies and there are seven more to come so there's still everything to fight for," added Hirvonen.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila were forced to retire from the event after hitting a tree at 110kph on the second leg. The rear of their Ford Focus RS WRC was too badly damaged to repair.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished ninth in the team's third car.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on a 'disappointing' weekend for the team. "What happened on the final stage proved once again how this sport delivers incredible drama. It also shows that the small, spectator-friendly tests can be just as important as the longer stages out in the country. After a great win in New Zealand earlier this month, this didn't go the way we planned but we have to accept that."
Gerard Quinn, Ford of Europe's motorsport chief, said: "We can't escape the fact that we didn't enjoy as good a weekend as we had hoped. We now have six weeks before the season restarts and we'll use that time to work as hard as we can to try to regain the form that has already brought the team two victories this season," he said.
1. S Ogier/J Ingrassia – Citroen C4
2. S Loeb/D Elena – Citroen C4
3. D Sordo/M Marti – Citroen C4
4. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen – Ford Focus RS
5. P Solberg/P Mills – Citroen C4
6. M Wilson/S Martin – Ford Focus RS
7. M Østberg/J Andersson – Subaru Impreza
8. F Villagra/J Perez Companc – Ford Focus RS
9. K Al Qassimi/M Orr – Ford Focus RS
10. K Räikkönen/K Lindström – Citroen C4
1. S Loeb 126pts
2. S Ogier 88pts
3. M Hirvonen 76pts
4. J-M Latvala 72pts
5. P Solberg 63pts
6. D Sordo 49pts
1. Citroen Total 189pts
2. BP Ford Abu Dhabi 163pts
3. Citroen Junior 106pts
4. Stobart M-Sport Ford 84pts
5. Munchi's Ford 40pts