LAHTI, Finland - Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished second in Rally Finland after three days of enthralling competition.
The Finns ended this eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship just 8.1sec behind the winners in their Fiesta RS World Rally Car. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen staged a superb recovery to finish fourth after losing two minutes when they hit a tree on the opening speed test. Hirvonen's fightback brought him to within 69.1sec of the winner as the 30-year-old Finn reeled off a string of special stage wins. He remains second in the drivers' standings.
He won five of Friday's eight speed tests and added a further eight wins from 11 stages on the final day, including fastest time in the live TV Power Stage, which earned three bonus points in the drivers' championship. Latvala won two tests as the Ford Abu Dhabi team topped the time charts in 15 of the 22 stages, covering 314.39km near the rally base of Jyväskylä and Lahti.
Rally Finland is the fastest round of the year and the smooth, wide gravel tracks and stomach-churning jumps provided some of the most spectacular action of the season. However, the opening two legs ended in the type of tactics more frequently seen on a chess board, as drivers measured their pace and jockeyed for position to find the most favourable road position for the following leg.
When the strategy ended, 26-year-old Latvala started the final leg in third, just 2.6sec from the lead and seemingly in the best start position of the leading trio. However, the dry, dusty roads of the previous two days gave way to damper conditions, and the advantage in the start order turned against Latvala and in favour of the two drivers ahead.
The gap to the lead widened to 20sec and a frustrated Latvala explained: "The humidity was so high that all the roads were damp. The moisture bound together the loose gravel and the cars ahead didn't have to sweep the dirt off the surface as we expected. Our road position wasn't the advantage we thought it would be. First in the order turned out to be the best because that's the position that offered the most traction."
The roads dried during the second pass, and Latvala, aided by some minor changes to the settings in his car's rear differential, began to reel in leader Sébastien Loeb and second-placed Sébastien Ogier. He moved ahead of Ogier, but fell just short of catching Loeb.
"I was closing on the lead all the time but I ran out of kilometres. Just two more stages would have been enough. I drove badly this morning when the car didn't perform as I would have liked and I didn't know what to do. I finally realised that I needed to make a change in the differential, and when I made that everything came together. Unfortunately it was too late," added Latvala.
Hirvonen's rally was compromised when he slid wide into a tree on the opening stage, damaging his car's brakes and suspension. He refocused on winning as many stages as possible and climbing as far up the leaderboard as he could.
"I'm disappointed not to win," he said. "My fightback was good and I had great speed all weekend, which makes it even more of a shame that I wasn't able to fight for victory. I have to thank the fans who gave me great support all rally. I love my home event and I enjoyed driving in front of them."
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 14th in the team's third Fiesta RS WRC. "Yesterday I wasn't so happy, but today was better and I'm glad to have finished with a good pace and no risks," said Al Qassimi.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson admitted he was 'disappointed' but added: "I know the disappointment is even greater for the drivers. Jari-Matti did a fantastic job, but he never really felt relaxed with the car until the kilometres were running out. Mikko fought back superbly to maintain second in the championship standings, but it's a rally we should have won."
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "I'm disappointed personally and for the team that after the huge effort everyone put into this rally, we won 15 out of the 22 stages and yet didn't win. Setting aside Mikko's accident, he was by far the fastest driver of the weekend and his reward was a Power Stage win rather than the overall victory that his speed deserved."
After a string of loose surface rallies, next month's Rallye Deutschland marks the opening asphalt round of the season. The rally is based in Trier on 19 - 21 August.
1. S Loeb/D Elena Citroen DS3
2. J-M Latvala/M Anttila Ford Fiesta RS
3. S Ogier/J Ingrassia Citroen DS3
4. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen Ford Fiesta RS
5. P Solberg/C Patterson Citroen DS3
6. M Østberg/J Andersson Ford Fiesta RS
7. H Solberg/I Minor Ford Fiesta RS
8. M Wilson/S Martin Ford Fiesta RS
9. K Räikkönen/K Lindström Citroen DS3
10 J Hanninen/M Markkula Skoda Fabia S2000
| 1. S Loeb
|| 1. Citroen Total
| 2. M Hirvonen
|| 2. Ford Abu Dhabi
| 3. S Ogier
|| 3. M-Sport Stobart Ford
| 4. J-M Latvala
|| 4. Petter Solberg
| 5. P Solberg
|| 5. Ice 1 Racing
| 6. M Østberg
|| 6. Munchi's Ford