FINLAND’S Mikko Hirvonen has reinvigorated the fight for the 2011 FIA World Rally Championship by winning a dramatic Rally Australia on the New South Wales Coffs Coast today.
Hirvonen, co-driven by countryman Jarmo Lehtinen, began the final leg of the three-day event 22.7 seconds behind Ford teammate Jari-Matti Latvala.
But when Latvala slowed to enable his fellow Fiesta RS WRC driver to get ahead, Hirvonen took a lead he wouldn’t relinquish.
In the process the Finn scored his first victory in the WRC since Rally Sweden in February – 212 days ago – to end Citroen’s run of success and close to 15 points off the championship lead held by Citroen’s Sebastien Loeb.
Celebrations on the victory podium beside Coffs Harbour’s ocean beach capped a memorable 21st Rally Australia.
Staged in a new location 300 kms south of the 2009 event, it drew wide praise from the WRC drivers and supporters for the quality of the roads and the warmth of the welcome throughout the Coffs Coast community.
The locals in turn showed their appreciation of the WRC competitors representing 22 nations by turning out in their many thousands at spectator points in the country and on the Coffs Habour Jetty waterfront.
Latvala made it a one-two for Ford on the podium, while Petter Solberg was third in his privateer Citroen DS3 WRC.
“This is a fantastic feeling and a very important result for the team and for my championship chances,” said Hirvonen, 31.
“I have to say a big thank you to my team and also to Jari-Matti for slowing down.
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“I’m back in the game but we have to work really hard now to improve our pace on tarmac [the surface of the next two rounds].”
Latvala, who won nine of the 26 Special Special stages during the event, was 14.7s behind Hirvonen at the finish.
“Of course it would have been great to have won the rally, but it was a great result for the team,” Latvala said.
Solberg’s capture of third place marked the Norwegian’s second podium of 2011.
“I’m very happy because I’ve been waiting a long time for that. The team has done a very good job and it’s great to be on the pace again. It’s thanks to them,” Solberg said.
Matthew Wilson equalled his career-best finish of fourth in his M-Sport Stobart Fiesta following a consistent performance alongside co-driver Scott Martin. The Britons have now scored points on eight events this season.
“The conditions were absolutely horrible on Friday so I’m absolutely overjoyed with this result,” Wilson said.
Team Abu Dhabi’s Khalid Al Qassimi claimed his highest finish at world level, in fifth after a controlled drive in his Fiesta.
“It’s a fantastic feeling and thanks to my co-driver Michael [Orr] for supporting me and to the team. It has been a perfect weekend and this is an historical result for Abu Dhabi because no other driver from our country has reached this level before.”
Sixth outright similarly was a huge achievement for young New Zealander Hayden Paddon, who with co-driver John Kennard clinched the Production Car World Rally Championship title driving a Subaru Impreza.
Haddon is the first winner of a rally world championship from Australia or New Zealand.
His class rivals Michal Kosciuszko, from Poland, and Ukrainian Oleksandr Saliuk finishjed seventh and eighth.
Mexican Benito Guerra took ninth with Sebastien Loeb battling back from his roll on Friday to claim the final point in 10th after his Citroen team ordered Sebastien Ogier to drop back on the penultimate stage.
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To do this Ogier started the second run through the 30 km Plum Pudding stage five minutes late to incur a 50-second penalty and fall behind Loeb on the road before parking up nearing the end of the stage for almost 10 minutes.
“On this rally the team made this choice because there is big pressure from Mikko who closed the gap a lot in the championship because of our mistake,” said Loeb.
Ogier said before the start on Thursday evening that he would follow team orders, but was downhearted when he was forced to surrender a points’ finish that would have been fitting reward for the way he fought back from his crash on Friday.
“I received a team order and I respected this,” he said.
But when asked if the loss of what would have been two drivers’ championship points would spell the end of his title ambitions, Ogier said: “I have no comment about that. You can draw your own conclusion but no comment for me.”
Ogier’s frustrations intensified when he slowed again before the finish of the Power Stage to ensure he didn’t take any bonus points away from Loeb, who claimed three extra points for topping the times on the rally-closing test. He eventually finished a despondent 11th.
Dutchman Peter van Merksteijn Jr recovered from his exit on Friday due to a double puncture to finish 13th in his privateer Citroen DS3 WRC.
Henning Solberg rolled on today’s third stage but recovered to 14th with John Spencer finishing as the leading Australian driver in 15th.
American Ken Block came home 19th overall in his Monster World Rally Team Fiesta after crashing out on Friday morning. But there was no finish for Brazil World Rally Team’s Daniel Oliveira, who went off the road in his MINI John Cooper Works WRC on today’s second stage.
Evgeny Novikov also hit trouble on the same Plum Pudding test, rolling heavily in his M-Sport Stobart Fiesta. The Russian was ninth at the time.
Results – Rally Australia, WRC Round 10 of 13:
1 M Hirvonen (Ford, Finland)
2 J-M Latvala (Ford, Finland) + 14.7 sec. behind next car
3 P Solberg (Citroen, Norway) + 30.1 sec.
4 M Wilson (Ford, UK) + 8 min. 00.4 sec.
5 K Al Khassimi (Ford, ARE) +3:48.1