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ISTANBUL, Turkey - BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished third in the Rally of Turkey after the most demanding round of the FIA World Rally Championship season to date.
The Finns' bid for victory was ended Sunday morning by a combination of bad weather, which forced the cancellation of two speed tests, and a puncture after their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car struck a rock.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished eighth in another Focus RS WRC after a superb recovery drive following an accident on Saturday. The double points haul keeps Ford in second place in the manufacturers' standings, 15 points from the lead. Hirvonen remains third in the drivers' championship, five points ahead of fourth-placed Latvala.
After five previous encounters in southern Turkey, this fourth round of the championship moved north to Istanbul and rocky roads north-east of the city near the Black Sea coastline proved a tough challenge for cars and tyres, while organisers took advantage of new rules for 2010 to spice up the action further with mixed surface speed tests.
Hirvonen led initially and ended the opening leg in third after intense competition which saw the top six cars covered by just 27sec. He retained third during the second leg and started the final day just 17.3sec from the lead. However, torrential overnight rain turned Sunday’s opening two special stages into a mudbath and they were cancelled. It reduced today's competitive distance by a third and with fewer kilometres in which to close the gap, Hirvonen attacked hard once the action started.
However, in treacherously muddy conditions, he slid wide 1.5km from the start of the 19.22km Ballica test and hit a rock, puncturing the rear left tyre. He lost more than 45sec driving to the end of the stage and dropped to fourth. However, he regained third on the next stage when Dani Sordo retired and drove cautiously through the final two tests to consolidate a podium position.
"I decided to chase the victory morning but the two cancelled stages didn't help me," said 29-year-old Hirvonen. "The car slid wide at a very fast place and hit a rock, puncturing the tyre. The tyre was destroyed after 10km but we decided to continue and only lost about 45sec, so that was the right decision. The impact also damaged the lining of the wheel arch and the car filled with dust and grit. It was so bad I couldn't see properly.
"We only made one mistake but we ended the day on the podium where we started, so it's not so bad. After what happened, third was the best we could achieve. It's not what I hoped for this weekend but the puncture destroyed my hopes of a win," he added.
Latvala ended the first leg in sixth but rolled just 1km after the start of the opening test on the second leg. He dropped nine minutes before spectators lifted the car back onto its wheels and lost more time on the remaining two tests before service as the turbo boost pipe was damaged in the crash. He slid to 17th but climbed to 12th by the end of the day. A fast, but cautious, drive enabled the 25-year-old to move up to eighth.
"It was an up and down weekend," he said. "Sitting in the car upside down wasn't a good place to be yesterday morning, but we scored manufacturers' and drivers' points so in the end it wasn't so bad. This was the hardest event of the year and the most demanding rally for the car that I've ever driven on. After the accident I thought I could take something from the rally, but I'm surprised to finish as high as eighth."
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was pleased Hirvonen recovered to claim a podium finish. "Sadly our chances evaporated with the cancelled stages, but Mikko salvaged third on what was the hardest event in the championship. The situation in the manufacturers' championship is virtually unchanged as only one point separated us from our rivals on this rally," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "The conditions here have been widely accepted as the toughest so far this season. However, we had no mechanical problems with our cars and Pirelli's tyres performed superbly in the most arduous situation. It was refreshing to see how competitive our drivers were and how closely-fought this rally was. Hopefully this will distance the sport from the controversies that followed Rally Jordan."
The BP Ford Abu Dhabi squad faces its longest journey of the season for round five. Rally New Zealand is based in Auckland on 6 - 9 May and is primarily a gravel event on fast and flowing roads on North Island, but with short asphalt sections included in several tests.
1. S Loeb – Citroen
2. P Solberg – Citroen
3. M Hirvonen – Ford
4. S Ogier – Citroen
5. K Räikkönen – Citroen
6. F Villagra – Ford
7. M Wilson – Ford
8. J-M Latvala – Ford
9. D Kuipers – Ford
10. A Burkar - Suzuki
1. S Loeb 93pts
2. P Solberg 53pts
3. M Hirvonen 52pts
4. J-M Latvala 47pts
5. S Ogier 45pts
6. D Sordo 24pts
1. Citroen Total 126pts
2. BP Ford Abu Dhabi 111pts
3. Citroen Junior 75pts
4. Stobart M-Sport Ford 56pts
5. Munchi's Ford 26pts