after dramatic finale in New Zealand
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished third on Rally New Zealand yesterday as, for the second consecutive season, the event provided a finale that could have come straight from a story book. The Finns drove their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to the Hamilton finish ceremony more in disappointment than celebration after a dramatic ending that also saw team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila retire and the team lose a possible 1-2 finish.
After two days of gripping competition over smooth and flowing gravel roads in the Waikato district of North Island, yesterday's final leg started with four drivers covered by less than 15sec. The tight leaderboard owed much to tactics as drivers jockeyed for position to obtain the best start position for the final day. With the roads covered in slippery loose gravel, those at the front were at a disadvantage as they swept away the stones to leave a cleaner, and faster, line for those behind to follow.
Latvala and Hirvonen were first and second overnight and started in that order. Latvala's 'sweeping' role helped Hirvonen enormously and the 28-year-old swapped places on the leaderboard with his colleague after the first loop of two countryside speed tests close to Raglan. With those tests repeated, the now clean roads offered a level playing field for all and Hirvonen extended his lead to 9.8sec over Latvala with just one countryside test and a short spectator-friendly stage remaining.
The 29.72km Whaanga Coast is one of the great challenges in the FIA World Rally Championship, winding through lush, green hills with stunning views of the Tasman Sea. It lived up to its reputation as the rally's keynote stage as firstly Latvala swiped a bank and retired with a damaged radiator and then Hirvonen punctured a tyre and later spun his Focus RS WRC, losing a minute and sliding to third.
"This is one of the biggest disappointments of my career but that's the way sport goes," said Hirvonen. "I was confident I could drive at normal pace through that stage and win but it wasn't to be because we handed Loeb victory. It's not looking so good for either championship now but it's not impossible. An eight-point gap in the drivers' standings will be difficult to make up and it's annoying to end like this after a great weekend. But I finished on the podium and what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. The positive from this event is that I know I can win gravel rallies.
"When I saw Jari-Matti stopped in the stage I knew I just had to finish. However about 9km from the end I realised I had a slow puncture on the rear right tyre. I've no idea how, or where, it happened. Then a kilometre before the finish I spun and the impact on the bank dragged off the front bumper. It just wasn't meant to be," added Hirvonen, after completing the last of the 16 tests covering 353.04km.
Latvala's accident happened 3.5km after the start. "I approached a long left bend where the later cars in the first pass had created a narrow line. I lost grip at the rear and the car went sideways. I floored the throttle to try to straighten up, but it turned and I went into the inside of the corner. I hit a bank, which had a rock buried in the sand, and the impact broke the radiator and the cooler. I knew straight away that it was over because the oil temperature and water warning lights came on. I'm disappointed because I lost points for myself and the team. I was going so well and was pleased with my driving here so I thought I could finish second. It's a bad feeling but after my problems in Germany, I've learned that I have to pick myself up and carry on," said 23-year-old Latvala.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson summed up the team's feelings. "This is one of the most disappointing days that we've ever had. After being in commanding first and second places going into the last countryside stage, we certainly didn't expect to find ourselves with just third. I really feel for Mikko because he drove a faultless rally and showed he can take the fight to Loeb. Both he and Jari-Matti showed tremendous pace this weekend and we'll come back fighting," he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport director Mark Deans said: "We're terribly disappointed with what happened but it's days like today that make the WRC such a fascinating sport. We were on the receiving end and this result is a blow to our hopes of retaining the manufacturers' championship, but there are still four rallies remaining so we'll fight back. We saw today how unpredictable this sport can be so it's too early to start making predictions of how the year might end."