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SARDINIA - Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished second in Rally Italia Sardegna to maintain their strong challenge in the FIA World Rally Championship.
Their Fiesta RS World Rally Car finished just 11.2sec from the lead, despite dropping more than 50sec during Friday's opening leg when Hirvonen hit a bank and punctured a tyre.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila were 18th in a Fiesta RS WRC. The Finns fell out of contention on Friday's opening speed test when they went off the road after a pace note error and retired. However, they returned under SupeRally rules and displayed blistering speed to climb back from 54th with five special stage wins out of six.
Hirvonen and Latvala claimed maximum bonus points in the rally's final live television Power Stage. Hirvonen was fastest from Latvala, to claim three and two points respectively. The Ford Abu Dhabi pairings won 11 of the rally's 18 stages, as Latvala claimed seven victories and Hirvonen four.
Hirvonen remains second in the drivers' standings, just seven points from the lead, after five of 13 rounds. Latvala lies fourth and Ford Abu Dhabi is second in the manufacturers' table.
The rocky gravel roads on the sun-kissed Mediterranean island made this a rally of attrition. More than half the 63 starters retired during the opening leg, based near the west coast town of Oristano. The retirement rate eased during the final two days, near the rally base in Olbia in the north-east of the island, as drivers tackled a total of 18 stages covering 339.70km.
Hirvonen was challenging for the lead on Friday until he hit an earth bank and punctured the rear right tyre. He ended the leg in third and closed in on the lead Saturday as he climbed to second. However, the gap was too big to chase victory over Sunday’s final four stages covering 65.58km, and the 30-year-old Finn concentrated on successfully fending off two challengers for second place and targeting the bonus points available on the last stage.
He was helped when organisers handed him a 4.5sec boost after correcting a wrong time from Saturday’s second stage.
"Second was a strong finish and I'm delighted with the bonus points," Hirvonen said. "I had a good rhythm throughout the stage. I lost 50 seconds after a mistake in the opening leg and if it hadn't been for that, I think I could have won this rally. I was happy with my speed throughout the weekend and I feel increasingly confident with the Fiesta RS WRC with every event."
Latvala was ruled out of contention for a good result after his first stage accident when Anttila misread a pace note – a mistake Latvala was quick to forgive. However, the 26-year-old Finn showed just what could have been when he was fastest overall in both the second and third legs.
"When my chances of a good overall result were gone, I decided to focus on taking bonus points from the Power Stage," he said. "At the service before the stage I decided to take only one spare wheel, and I removed the tools that we normally carry in the car to save weight. We saved about 40kg. After setting a fast time it was exciting watching to see if anyone could beat me. If anyone had to beat me, then I'm glad it was Mikko.
"Conditions were slippery Sunday morning and although I won the opening two stages, I was too close to the mountainside in places, so I decided to calm down! The car was very fast and reliable all weekend and I'm already looking forward to the next round in Argentina," he added.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 12th in the team's other Fiesta RS WRC, scoring solid manufacturers' points for Team Abu Dhabi. "It was an incredibly tough rally. It's so easy to clip a rock and damage the car. Sometimes I was too fast and sometimes too cautious and it was a difficult job trying to find the right balance with the car," said Al Qassimi.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with the pace shown by both drivers. "We won 11 of the 18 stages and I believe we were the fastest car / driver package," he said. "The Power Stage result was some consolation for not winning the rally outright. It was frustrating that Mikko and Jari-Matti lost time on the first day. I'm sad that Miikka made a mistake, but the whole team is behind him and they regained their confidence with so many fastest times yesterday."
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "The pace of the Fiesta RS WRC was clear for all to see and but for two unfortunate incidents, both Mikko and Jari-Matti would have challenged for victory. Positions in both the manufacturers' and drivers' championship remain close and I'm confident the exciting competition we have viewed this year will continue throughout the season."
1. S Loeb Citroen DS3
2. M Hirvonen Ford Fiesta RS
3. P Solberg Citroen DS3
4. S Ogier Citroen DS3
5. M Østberg Ford Fiesta RS
6. D Sordo Mini John Cooper
7. O Tanak Ford Fiesta S2000
8. J Hanninen Skoda Fabia S2000
9. M Wilson Ford Fiesta RS 3hr 53min 41.3sec
10 N Al-Attiyah Ford Fiesta S2000