The Ford 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 Sebastien 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 took control at 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," he continued. "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," Hirvonen admitted. "It wasn't the result I wanted but I'm glad that we went down fighting and it was a hugely enjoyable battle."