BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen took the lead in the FIA World Rally Championship today after winning Rally Poland in a Focus RS World Rally Car
It was Ford's third straight victory following wins in Italy and Greece and Hirvonen now heads the drivers' standings by one point with four rounds remaining.
The Finns led the rally for virtually the entire event, their winning margin 1min 10.3sec after three days of flat-out competition. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila were on course for second place in another Focus RS WRC, only to retire with the finish in sight after hitting a barrel and breaking his car's steering on the final speed test in the rally's host town of Mikolajki
This was Poland's first appearance in the WRC since the inaugural championship in 1973. More than 200,000 fans swamped the Mazurian Lake District, 250km from Warsaw in the north-east of the country, to watch the action. Narrow, sandy and blisteringly fast gravel roads challenged the drivers, who tackled 18 special stages covering 352.00km. Such was the pace that Hirvonen won Friday's penultimate speed test at an average speed of 129.44kph.
Hirvonen took the lead on the third stage on Friday morning and Latvala claimed second just one test later after Sébastien Loeb, Hirvonen's title rival, hit a tree stump and broke his car's suspension. The BP Ford Abu Dhabi duo withstood a determined challenge yesterday morning from third-placed Dani Sordo and measured their pace through today's final leg until the last stage drama.
"This has been the best rally of the season so far," said 28-year-old Hirvonen. "The roads here are fast and narrow and the crowds provided a superb atmosphere. It's the first time I have won two consecutive rallies and it has put me into the lead of the championship ahead of my home rally in Finland. The weekend was perfect from start to finish. After Loeb's mistake on Friday, I thought I might have an easy drive but it wasn't to be. I had to drive flat out yesterday to stay ahead and it's a fantastic feeling to win after such a great fight.
"I started this morning determined to go flat out through the first loop of stages. When I saw the split times of the guys behind me I knew they weren't pushing so hard, so I was able to drive more cautiously. Everything is possible now regarding the championship. I'm in the lead, so it's in my own hands over the final four rounds," said Hirvonen.
Latvala drove a faultless rally until his final stage error. The 24-year-old Finn relished the challenge of the fast and narrow roads and had provided perfect support to both Hirvonen's title bid and Ford's challenge for a third manufacturers' title in four years. However, it all went wrong on the second bend of the final 2.50km test.
"It was my mistake," admitted a distraught Latvala. "I wasn't driving too quickly but I turned into the bend too early and clipped an oil barrel which was full of sand. The impact broke the steering and I couldn't turn into the next bend and hit the barrier on the opposite side of the road. I've let down the team and damaged Ford's dream of winning the manufacturers' title this year."
A determined Latvala and Anttila tried to push the car to the finish of the stage and completed a whole lap before being forced to stop and retire.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on a bitter-sweet end to the weekend. "Mikko has been fantastic throughout. He drove superbly all weekend and thoroughly deserved to take his second win in a row. But I never expected to see what I saw on the final stage. I went to watch the perfect end of a perfect weekend but I can't believe what happened right in front of my eyes. It was heartbreaking to see such an excellent result slip away after both drivers did such a superb job for three days," he said.
Ford of Europe's motorsport manager Gerard Quinn said: "Three consecutive wins is a great reward for the efforts of the team over recent months. Mikko leads the championship going into his home rally and that will be a special moment for him. All our efforts are geared towards maintaining our momentum in Finland, one of the sport's great classics, next month."
The championship moves into its final third in Finland next month for one of the sport's great classics. Rally Finland, the home event for Hirvonen and Latvala, is based in Jyväskylä on 30 July - 2 August.
1. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Focus RS 3hr 07min 27.5sec
2. D Sordo/M Marti ESP Citroen C4 3hr 08min 37.8sec
3. H Solberg/C Menkerud NOR Ford Focus RS 3hr 09min 33.2sec
4. P Solberg/P Mills NOR Citroen Xsara 3hr 09min 51.8sec
5. M Wilson/S Martin GBR Ford Focus RS 3hr 11min 45.0sec
6. K Holowczyc/L Kurzeja POL Ford Focus RS 3hr 12min 01.4sec
7. S Loeb/D Elena FRA Citroen C4 3hr 26min 42.6sec
8. C Rautenbach/D Barritt ZIM Citroen C4 3hr 26min 48.1sec
9. E Novikov/D Moscatt RUS Citroen C4 3hr 26min 53.7sec
10 M Bebenek/G Bebenek POL Mitsubishi Lancer 3hr 30min 36.2sec