Ford secures double podium in classic Norway snow spectacular
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team claimed a double podium finish in Rally Norway today after a gripping final day’s action in the frozen forests near the Olympic city of Lillehammer. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished second in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car after an enthralling battle with arch-rival Sébastien Loeb that was only decided in the final kilometres. Team-mates and fellow Finns Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila were third in another Focus RS WRC.
Hirvonen’s second podium in the opening two rounds of the FIA World Rally Championship season places the 28-year-old second in the drivers’ standings, with Latvala fifth. Ford lies second in the manufacturers’ table.
Norway is enjoying a spectacular winter and temperatures nudging -30ºC ensured the ice-packed roads were in perfect condition for a classic snow rally. Bone hard and lined by large snow banks, they encouraged drivers to attack. The tungsten-tipped studs in Pirelli’s Sottozero tyres provided amazing grip as they cut into the deep ice base and Hirvonen clocked speeds of more than 200kph through the picture-postcard countryside.
Hirvonen led for much of the opening leg but could not shake off Loeb, who moved to the front and built a lead of 15.0sec by the end of the second day. Hirvonen retaliated during today’s final leg and four wins from the first five speed tests reduced the margin to just 7.7sec ahead of the final 19.74km special stage. However, the deficit proved just too much and Hirvonen had to settle for second at the finish in Hamar, 9.8sec behind after 23 stages covering 360.90km of competition.
“This was the best winter rally I’ve competed on – and I have driven many,” said Hirvonen. “It was fantastic to drive on the edge in snow and ice for three days, and to be involved in such a great battle. To be split by less than 10sec after more than 360km of competition says it all. The line between making a small mistake and being perfect at those speeds is so tiny and I couldn’t have done any more. I took so many risks but we both had to do that because the competition was so close.
“I’m disappointed to be second. I lost the rally yesterday because I couldn’t respond to Loeb’s speed then. It wasn’t the result I wanted but I’m glad that we went down fighting and it was a hugely enjoyable battle,” he added.
Latvala claimed third early on the first morning and while the 23-year-old was unable to match his team-mate’s pace, he was comfortably faster than anyone else and finished more than two minutes clear of the fourth-placed Focus RS WRC of Henning Solberg. During both the opening two legs Latvala could not find a good feeling with his car in the morning, but after softening the suspension settings in the afternoon, his pace increased markedly. With third place virtually assured, he adopted a risk-free policy through the final leg, but still overshot a junction on the last stage.
“I’m happy to score a podium but at the same time disappointed not to be able to fight for victory,” said Latvala. “They are good points for myself and the team but my chances really ended on Saturday morning. I should have softened the suspension settings earlier so I can look in the mirror and see the reason why I didn’t challenge the top two drivers. If I could start this weekend again, I would redo the mornings. The grip level was good then and I should have trusted that and taken greater advantage. I wasn’t in a hurry today because there was no competition. I relaxed and enjoyed the driving.”
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on ‘a great team performance’. “Mikko gave it everything, and for the result to be as close as it was is an indication of how hard both were trying. Jari-Matti had a solid weekend, and his pace yesterday afternoon when he won two stages, was encouraging. Both cars ran faultlessly all weekend and Focus RS WRCs won 11 of the 23 stages, so we can go away from here feeling confident,” he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport director Mark Deans said: “On just its second appearance in the WRC, it has the makings of a classic and the close finish owed much to the great organisation. It was a thrilling spectacle for the thousands of fans who braved numbing temperatures in the forests and the small margin between the two drivers throughout the weekend augurs well for the year,” he said.
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Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) held off Hirvonen’s determined challenge to claim his 49th victory. Behind the BP Ford Abu Dhabi duo, Stobart driver Henning Solberg (Ford) claimed fourth ahead of Dani Sordo (Citroen). Petter Solberg (Citroen) held off Stobart’s Matthew Wilson (Ford) to take sixth. Sébastien Ogier (Citroen) lost more than two minutes after sliding into a snowbank but the Frenchman retained 10th. Five Focus RS WRCs finished in the top 10 with Stobart driver Urmo Aava completing the quintet in eighth. There were no major retirements today.
The championship’s next stop is Cyprus, where Limassol hosts the Cyprus Rally on 12 – 15 March. This will be a mixed surface event, with the opening day on asphalt and the final two days on gravel.
1. S Loeb/D Elena FRA Citroen C4 3hr 28min 15.9sec
2. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Focus RS 3hr 28min 25.7sec
3. J-M Latvala/M Anttila FIN Ford Focus RS 3hr 29min 37.7sec
4. H Solberg/C Menkerud NOR Ford Focus RS 3hr 31min 49.4sec
5. D Sordo/M Marti ESP Citroen C4 3hr 32min 07.9sec
6. P Solberg/P Mills NOR Citroen Xsara 3hr 34min 41.3sec
7. M Wilson/S Martin GBR Ford Focus RS 3hr 34min 51.5sec
8. U Aava/K Sikk EST Ford Focus RS 3hr 35min 05.0sec
9. M Østberg/O Unnerud NOR Subaru Impreza 3hr 38min 16.4sec
10 S Ogier/J Ingrassia FRA Citroen C4 3hr 41min 05.7sec
1. S Loeb 20pts
2. M Hirvonen 14pts
3. D Sordo 12pts
4. H Solberg 10pts
5. J-M Latvala 6pts
6. C Atkinson 4pts
1. Citroen Total 32pts
2. BP Ford Abu Dhabi 22pts
3. Stobart VK M-Sport Ford 16pts
4. Citroen Junior Team 8pts