It was Ford’s first podium clean sweep since Rally Sweden in 2008, when Latvala claimed his maiden WRC win and was followed home by Hirvonen and Gigi Galli. Ford Abu Dhabi holds an 18 point lead in the manufacturers’ world championship and Hirvonen’s victory makes him Ford’s most successful WRC driver. This was his 13th victory, edging him ahead of former team-mate Marcus Grönholm.
Eager anticipation built up ahead of the start. New cost-effective, more environmentally aware regulations – based around 1600cc turbocharged, four-wheel drive cars – ushered in a fresh era for the WRC. The first rally for the new-generation cars proved an exciting one with five drivers starting the final day with a realistic chance of victory.
Conditions were ideal for winter rallying as drivers battled over 22 speed tests covering 351.00km in central Sweden. The forest roads were frozen hard by temperatures that dipped as low as -28ºC, providing perfect grip for Michelin’s tungsten-tipped studded tyres. However, blizzards on the opening leg of the four-day event handicapped the early starters as they ploughed the roads to leave a cleaner and faster line for those behind.
Hirvonen benefited from a later start position on the opening leg to end it just 14.8sec behind Østberg. Second in the start order was far from ideal in the second leg. However, he took the lead and built up a healthy advantage before a spin handed 15sec back to his rivals. He began today with a 7.4sec lead and, on roads that were remarkably free of loose snow, extended it with three stage wins. Grip was worse when the tests were repeated, but Hirvonen preserved his lead to repeat his 2010 win.
“It was an amazing weekend for the whole team and a fantastic feeling to stand on the top step of the podium for the first time for 12 months, surrounded by Ford colleagues,” said the 30-year-old Finn. “Technically, the car was fantastic and I didn’t need to change the set-up once. It’s early days with the car, but I’m really starting to understand how it behaves now. The car and I are learning together.
“The roads were clean and smooth this morning, and I pushed as hard as I could because I knew they would be dirtier this afternoon. I’m not usually nervous, but I was before the final stage. Østberg put up a great fight and I didn’t have enough time in hand for even a small mistake. After such a difficult season last year, this is a superb start to 2011,” added Hirvonen.
Latvala enjoyed a roller-coaster weekend, mixing stage-winning pace with several spins into snow banks. He ended the opening leg in fourth and admitted he was lucky to escape unscathed from three spins. The 25-year-old Finn was too aggressive early in the second leg and couldn’t find a rhythm, but was transformed in the afternoon to reduce the gap to the lead from 44.3sec to 10.9sec.
His victory hopes ended when he slid into a snowbank on the opening stage this morning. The impact ripped the front bumper from the car and his windscreen froze up. He dropped to fifth, but fastest time in two of the final three stages brought a hard-earned podium. “It was the most eventful rally weekend of my life and, after so many ups and downs, I’m really happy with third,” said Latvala.
“I was close to the top of the leaderboard so many times, but then I found another snow bank to hinder me. A podium didn’t look likely this morning but I didn’t give up, I kept fighting and got my reward. Now I can breathe easily. After hitting the bank this morning, my windscreen froze and the sun and snow dust hanging in the air made visibility so tricky,” he added.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr, driving the team’s Fiesta RS WRC for the satellite Team Abu Dhabi squad, finished 10th. “This weekend went well for us. I’m pleased to finish in the top 10 and the improvement in speed this year compared to last is really encouraging. The temperatures here were just extraordinary and made driving difficult, but the new car responded well,” said Al Qassimi.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was overjoyed with the result. “It was a dream start to the season and to achieve what we did with a brand new car adds to the accomplishment. Mikko endured a tough season last year so I’m delighted he started 2011 so well. Jari-Matti survived a few close escapes, but also showed great pace and a podium was deserved.
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: “To lock out the podium in the first rally with the all-new Fiesta RS WRC is more than we could have hoped for. It’s a rewarding start to our 2011 campaign for every member of the team, which has worked thousands of hours to ensure the car was competitive from the very start.”
News from other Ford teams
Second was a career-best result for M-Sport Stobart Ford driver Østberg, who led after the opening leg. Team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin were ninth, but Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor rolled the team’s third car into retirement yesterday. Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino were 14th while the privately-entered car of PG Andersson and Emil Axelsson was eighth.
The championship switches to gravel next month for the first of two rallies in the 2011 calendar in the Americas. Rally Mexico is based in León on 3 – 6 March.