Hirvonen climbs into midst of world championship title battle

Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen moved to within three points of the FIA World Rally Championship lead after a dramatic 11th round in France this weekend.  The Finns finished fourth in Rallye de France in a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car, to set up a thrilling title battle with just three points covering three drivers, with two rounds remaining.  Team-mates and fellow countrymen Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished fifth in another Fiesta RS WRC.  They showed the great team spirit within the Ford Abu Dhabi squad by sacrificing fourth place for themselves to boost Hirvonen’s points tally and help his quest for a maiden world title.Strasbourg, capital of the Alsace region in north-east France, hosted the rally for a second year.  Drivers tackled 23 speed tests covering 337.43km over asphalt roads in the Vosges mountains and the region’s vineyards, and two crowd-pleasing street tests in the towns of Mulhouse and Haguenau.  Temperatures climbed to 28ºC during the three-day rally, although low-early morning mercury levels ensured damp patches lingered under the trees in woodland area.  The Ford drivers opted for a mixture of soft and hard compound Michelin Pilot Sport tyres, which delivered a strong performance in conditions ranging from clean asphalt to dirt and gravel-covered roads.Hirvonen and Latvala both dropped time on the opening morning after sliding off the road.  Hirvonen lost 50sec when he clipped a bank and the impact pulled the front left tyre off the wheel rim.  Latvala slid wide onto a grassy area and became stuck, losing 80sec as spectators pushed his car back onto the road.  They ended the day with Latvala in fifth and Hirvonen in sixth.However, the focus of the team’s strategy switched from chasing outright results to concentrating on Hirvonen’s title hopes following the retirement of series leader Sébastien Loeb with a broken engine.  It meant Hirvonen could propel himself back into the title fight with a solid points finish and the 31-year-old measured his pace and adopted a risk-free policy.Latvala and Hirvonen climbed to fourth and fifth during the second leg, and maintained their positions during the final day until shortly before the final live TV Power Stage in Haguenau.  Latvala checked into a regroup early, incurring a two minute penalty which allowed Hirvonen to move ahead and claim valuable extra points to reduce the gap from 15 points to three.   “Who would have thought four weeks ago we would be where we are now in the championship?” said Hirvonen.  “The battle ended on Friday when I made a mistake and Loeb retired.  After that I knew it was all about points, but it was difficult to find a rhythm because I was driving cautiously to finish.  If I had made a mistake I would have looked silly, as my title challenge would have been over.  “I owe Jari-Matti a big thank you.  Again he proved what a superb team player he is.  There’s no more room for error over the final two rounds and it should be a great end to the championship,” he said.  Latvala won five of today’s six speed tests, and claimed maximum bonus points by winning the Power Stage.  The 26-year-old was delighted with his pace on his least-favourite surface.  “If I want to be a good asphalt driver, then I must learn and this is the day that I learned and raised my pace.  We’ve made progress since the last asphalt round in Germany and I’m increasingly confident with the car.“It was my best performance on asphalt.  I made some mistakes and I wasn’t consistent enough, so I still I need to sustain pace and consistency for the whole rally, but it’s just about fine-tuning.  I was hesitant on asphalt before but I’m not afraid of it any more.  Being a Finn and being good on asphalt isn’t easy, but I’m getting better and better,” explained Latvala.    Abu Dhabi’s Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 13th in the team’s other Fiesta RS WRC.  “It was hard to find my speed but this is my first asphalt rally for a year, my first asphalt rally in the Fiesta RS WRC and using Michelin’s tyres, so to finish is a good result,” said Al Qassimi.Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was encouraged by the pace of the Fiesta RS WRC.  “We didn’t get the result we wanted, but the real positive was Jari-Matti’s performance.  We made some set-up changes after Germany which gave him confidence and he won seven stages.  We leave here with Mikko just three points from the lead, and the title race is wide open again,” he said.Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn was delighted with Latvala’s drive.  “He did a superb job, dispelling any doubts about our asphalt pace, and for the second rally in succession helped put the team back in the title battle.  This result has put a new perspective on the final two rallies in Spain and Britain, which we’re very much looking forward to,” he said.News from other Ford teamsFERM Power Tools pair Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte claimed a career-best sixth in a Fiesta RS WRC.  M-Sport Stobart Ford drivers Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor were seventh, with team-mates Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson one place behind.  Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino were ninth, their best result of the season, with M-Sport Stobart Ford’s Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin in 11th and Evgeny Novikov / Denis Giraudet in 24th.  Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk won the SWRC support category in a Ford Fiesta S2000, and the Estonians lie three points behind the leader with just one round remaining.Next roundRally de España is the penultimate round of the series and is based in Salou on 20 - 23 October.  The rally is mixed surface, with a predominantly opening gravel leg followed by two days of asphalt. Final positions1.  S Ogier/J Ingrassia         FRA             Citroen DS3             3hr 06min 20.4sec2.  D Sordo/C Del Barrio                ESP             Mini John Cooper        3hr 06min 26.7sec3.  P Solberg/C Patterson               NOR             Citroen DS3             3hr 07min 44.2sec4.  M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen               FIN             Ford Fiesta RS  3hr 09min 47.0sec5.  J-M Latvala/M Anttila               FIN             Ford Fiesta RS  3hr 09min 50.7sec 6.  D Kuipers/F Miclotte                NLD             Ford Fiesta RS  3hr 13min 02.4sec7.  H Solberg/I Minor           NOR             Ford Fiesta RS  3hr 13min 28.7sec8.  M Østberg/J Andersson               NOR             Ford Fiesta RS  3hr 14min 18.7sec9.  K Block/A Gelsomino         USA             Ford Fiesta RS  3hr 14min 45.9sec10 P Campana/S De Castelli              FRA             Mini John Cooper        3hr 14min 59.1sec Drivers                                          1.  S Loeb                      196pts                  2= M Hirvonen           193pts                  2= S Ogier                       193pts                  4.  J-M Latvala         129pts                  5.  P Solberg             125pts                  6.  M Østberg                       60pts                                                                          Manufacturers1.  Citroen Total                         372pts2.  Ford Abu Dhabi        312pts3.  M-Sport Stobart Ford         129pts4.  Petter Solberg               116pts5= Munchi's Ford                   32pts5= Team Abu Dhabi                32pts5= FERM Power Tools       32ptsStage TimesStage 18: 1. Latvala 2min 51.0sec; 2. Kuipers + 3.6; 3. Sordo + 4.4; 4= Østberg, Block + 5.2; 6. P Solberg + 6.1; 10. Hirvonen + 9.3; 13. Al Qassimi + 13.2.Overall: 1. Ogier 2hr 45min 22.8sec; 2. Sordo + 6.4; 3. P Solberg + 50.5; 4. Latvala + 1:28.9; 5. Hirvonen + 3:02.8; 6. Kuipers + 5:55.4; 13. Al Qassimi + 11:23.1.Stage 19: 1. Sordo 5min 54.6sec; 2. Ogier + 1.5; 3. Østberg + 5.3; 4. Latvala + 5.9; 5. Wilson + 8.9; 6. Block + 9.7; 7. Hirvonen + 10.8; 12. Al Qassimi + 20.7.Overall: 1. Ogier 2hr 51min 18.9sec; 2. Sordo + 4.9; 3. P Solberg + 1:13.3; 4. Latvala + 1:33.3; 5. Hirvonen + 3:12.1; 6. Kuipers + 6:08.2; 13. Al Qassimi + 11:42.3.Stage 20: 1. Latvala 3min 11.6sec; 2. Ogier, Sordo + 0.4; 4. P Solberg + 2.2; 5. Hirvonen + 3.3; 6. Wilson + 5.5; 15. Al Qassimi + 9.7.Overall: 1. Ogier 2hr 54min 30.9sec; 2. Sordo + 4.9; 3. P Solberg + 1:15.1; 4. Latvala + 1:32.9; 5. Hirvonen + 3:15.0; 6. Kuipers + 6:15.4; 13. Al Qassimi + 11:51.6.Stage 21: 1. Latvala 2min 47.2sec; 2. Ogier + 0.1; 3. Sordo + 1.1; 4. P Solberg + 2.9; 5. Hirvonen + 4.6; 6. Block + 5.2; 12. Al Qassimi + 10.7.Overall: 1. Ogier 2hr 57min 18.2sec; 2. Sordo + 5.9; 3. P Solberg + 1:17.9; 4. Latvala + 1:32.8; 5. Hirvonen + 3:19.5; 6. Kuipers + 6:22.8; 13. Al Qassimi + 12:02.2.Stage 22: 1= Latvala, Ogier 5min 50.3sec; 3. Sordo + 0.8; 4. Østberg + 3.3; 5. P Solberg + 3.4; 6. Wilson + 5.8; 7. Hirvonen + 7.1; 13. Al Qassimi + 16.4.Overall: 1. Ogier 3hr 03min 08.5sec; 2. Sordo + 6.7; 3. P Solberg + 1:21.3; 4. Latvala + 1:32.8; 5. Hirvonen + 3:26.6; 6. Kuipers + 6:37.2; 13. Al Qassimi + 12:18.6.Stage 23: 1. Latvala 3min 09.4sec; 2. Sordo + 2.0; 3= Hirvonen, Ogier + 2.4; 5. Wilson + 4.5; 6. P Solberg + 4.9; 14. Al Qassimi + 12.1.Overall: 1. Ogier 3hr 06min 20.4sec; 2. Sordo + 6.3; 3. P Solberg + 1:23.8; 4. Hirvonen + 3:26.6; 5. Latvala + 3:30.3; 6. Kuipers + 6:42.0; 13. Al Qassimi + 12:28.2.