STRASBOURG, France - BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished fourth in Rallye de France after a tough three days action.
The Finns have improved their asphalt pace dramatically this season, and their second consecutive fourth place on the surface enabled the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car duo to strengthen their grip on third in the FIA World Rally Championship.
Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen ended sixth in another Focus RS WRC.
This 11th round of the championship was based in the Alsace region of north-east France after moving away from its traditional home on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Strasbourg, on the border with Germany, was the host city. Drivers tackled 19 speed tests covering 328.18km on a mix of roads through narrow vineyards, forests, town centre streets and Alpine-like routes in the Vosges mountains.
Rain made conditions treacherous on the opening two days. Cars dragged mud and stones on to the asphalt as they cut corners in search of a faster line, and the stages resembled gravel tracks in places. However, glorious autumn sunshine on the final leg provided a fitting end to the event.
Latvala, who used Pirelli's soft compound P Zero tyres throughout the rally, enjoyed the slippery roads in the opening leg and won two stages to hold fourth place. He slipped to fifth on the second morning but added a third stage win, before climbing to fourth as he became involved in a fight with Petter Solberg for the final podium place. A spin on Saturday’s last stage hampered his chances and there were insufficient kilometres on Sunday to regain the lost time and leapfrog Solberg.
However, Latvala added a fourth stage win as he and Hirvonen were first and second through the final stage in front of huge crowds in the streets of Haguenau, a stage broadcast live on TV across France.
"My target was to finish in the top five and I achieved that," said Latvala, for whom asphalt is his least favourite surface. "However, I'm slightly disappointed because a podium was so close and that shows how much progress I've made on asphalt. I wanted to drive safely today, but I also wanted to be close enough to Solberg to take advantage if he had a problem. The conditions were incredibly difficult and I'm delighted to have won four stages on this surface. I can almost call myself an asphalt driver!"
Hirvonen also opted for soft rubber but the 30-year-old Finn admitted he lacked confidence in the slippery conditions for most of the opening two legs and settled into sixth. However, he stepped up his pace significantly towards the end of the second day as he began to understand the behaviour of his Focus RS WRC in the mud and dirt. The time lost left him with no realistic chance to climb the leaderboard and he measured his pace through the final leg for a solid points finish.
"It was a disappointing weekend but at least I now know where it went wrong," he said. "I made many small changes to the set-up of the car during the weekend and when the conditions were slippery and tricky, they worked. I learned how to drive the car in those conditions. That gives me confidence for the next round in Spain later this month, where the weather could be wet and the asphalt could again be slippery."
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 13th in the team's other Focus RS WRC. Al Qassimi survived several spins and admitted the muddy roads were not enjoyable to drive.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson praised Latvala's performance. "We never expected to come to France and set fastest times against the French drivers. But Jari-Matti won four stages and that's a sign of how well his driving has developed as the season has progressed, especially on his least favourite surface. That's the big positive from the weekend. Unfortunately Mikko had a bad start, but picked up his pace as the rally went on, although his time loss was too great," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "I congratulate Citroen, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena on winning the manufacturers' and drivers' world titles today. We look forward to renewing our battle with them next season with our all-new Ford Fiesta RS WRC. However, there are still two rallies remaining this season and we'll do our utmost to end the season on a high note."
The penultimate round of the series takes BP Ford Abu Dhabi's drivers to Spain for a new-look Rally de España on 21 - 24 October. Although still based in Salou, the rally will return to its roots as a mixed surface gravel and asphalt event.
1. S Loeb/D Elena – Citroen C4
2. D Sordo/D Vallejo – Citroen C4
3. P Solberg/C Patterson – Citroen
4. J-M Latvala/M Anttila – Ford Focus
5. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen – Ford Focus
6. S Ogier/J Ingrassia – Citroen C4
7. F Villagra/D Curletto – Ford Focus
8. M Wilson/S Martin – Ford
9. H Solberg/S Prévot – Ford Fiesta S2000
10 P Sandell/E Axelsson –Skoda Fabia S2000