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Latvala takes victory in Rally New Zealand


BP Ford Focus driver Finland’s Jari-Matti Latvala won Rally New Zealand after a day of drama in the four special stages near Raglan on Sunday

Latvala and co-driver Miikka Anttila snatched the win on the second run of the iconic Whaanga Coast test, the very last stage of the 2010 FIA World Rally Championship’s fifth round. Latvala pushed hard to overtake overnight rally leader Sébastien Ogier of the Citroën Junior Team.

Latvala went into the final test 6.2 seconds behind the Frenchman who did his chances no good with a small spin early in the stage and another, three corners from the end. Ogier eventually recorded a time just under nine seconds slower than the Ford’s, which gave victory to Latvala by 2.4 seconds. World champion and 2010 series leader Sébastien Loeb finished third in his works Citroen, 15.2 seconds behind Latvala.

When he reached the end of the final stage, Latvala wasn’t sure he had won. “Three corners from the end (of Whaanga 2), I saw a piece of bumper on the road and knew something was happening. But I didn’t know what was going on (the bumper belonged to Ogier’s Citroen).

“Suddenly my co-driver Miikka said: ‘we have won’. And we had won! There are no words to describe this. I can’t believe I’m second in the championship,” Latvala said. “I wasn’t the fastest here but I was the most consistent and that paid off when it mattered.”

The winning margin was the second smallest in a WRC event this century. The previous one was the 2007 Rally New Zealand where Ford’s Marcus Grönholm beat Loeb on the final special stage by three-tenths of a second. Latvala’s win is also significant for Ford as they overtook Lancia as the most successful manufacturer in WRC history, with 75 wins.

The Raglan stages, particularly the long and very demanding Whaanga Coast test, again determined the rally’s outcome. Two years ago, mishaps on the final run through Whaanga cost the factory Fords victory, and Loeb won. This year, the tables were turned, and it was the works Citroens which were in strife, and Ford which capitalised on their misfortune.

Mikko Hirvonen finished fourth today, giving Ford a better manufacturers’ championship points haul than Citroën in this event. Citroen’s points from Rally New Zealand came from Loeb in third and Dani Sordo who finished fifth.

Loeb started the morning well, overtaking Ogier for the lead in the first special stage, Te Hutewai, near Raglan. Ogier, running first on the road, spun and set only the eighth-fastest time.

But then came the first run through the Whaanga Coast test, and disaster for Loeb who ran wide on a fast right-hander, sliding off the road in thick gravel and charging through shrubbery before coming to rest against a small tree. He got going again but had lost 30 seconds and dropped from the lead to fourth place, 21.7 seconds behind leader Ogier.

“It was a bit more gravelled than what I expected and I lost control of the car,” Loeb said. “Then, the second pass through, I really tried again because we were not so far from the lead and finally I had another spin – maybe pushing a bit too hard.”

Both Latvala and Hirvonen had been in strong form in the day’s opening tests, Hirvonen winning the first and finishing second in the other. Latvala, meanwhile, had been pouring the pressure on to Ogier and was now in second place. 5.6 seconds behind. Loeb won the morning’s third test, the second run through Te Hutewai, with Ogier second and edging the gap over Latvala to 6.2 seconds. The rally would be decided on the final stage, Whaanga Coast 2.

Ogier said second place was “still a very good result but a bit frustrating. I did another spin and I lost 10 seconds. With that, I lost first place.

“For sure it was big disappointment to lose my first victory like this but it doesn’t really matter if I continue in this way I will have a victory soon, so it’s a good result,” said the former junior world rally champion.

Fifth-placed Hirvonen said it had been a difficult weekend, “really difficult. In the end we managed to get two positions today and we got good (manufacturers’) points for the team.”

After being day one’s overnight leader, Norway’s Petter Solberg was still in a strong position to push for his first win in his privately-entered Citroën as day three started. He won the first Whaanga stage in a time that was 23 seconds faster than Ogier’s and went into Whaanga 2 in third place, just 16.8 seconds behind the Frenchman and 10.6 adrift of Latvala. Solberg was pushing hard when he slid off the road, hitting a power pole and bringing down a power line. His Citroen ended up in a ditch with its nose badly damaged and Solberg’s rally was over.

Rally New Zealand also counts for the 2010 Super 2000 and production world rally championships. Ford scored a clean sweep in Super 2000, with Finn Jari Ketomaa finishing eighth overall, leading home the similar Fiesta S2000s of Xavier Pons and Martin Prokop.

With a big lead over Pons, Ketomaa said he had just driven to finish on Sunday’s four stages. “Trying to keep the rhythm and drive slowly, it’s not easy to go like that. The first stage was a little bit bad from my side but after that I started to go very well.”

New Zealand rally champion Hayden Paddon won the production car world championship category in his Mitsubishi Lancer EVO IX finishing 14th overall. He also took the first New Zealander crown, claiming for the second time in succession the coveted Woolf-Whittaker Trophy. His main opposition, former production world champion Toshi Arai and double New Zealand champion Richard Mason, both fell out of contention on day one. Paddon finished just over three minutes ahead of fellow Kiwis contesting the PWRC class Emma Gilmour and Kingsley Thompson.

Aside from worries about a faulty clutch during Sunday’s stages, Paddon had a trouble-free run. “It’s been an absolute dream weekend and we got the result we wanted. What more could we ask for?”

It was an all-New Zealand podium in the production class with Gilmour bringing her Subaru Impreza STI into second, and Kingsley Thompson third in a Lancer EVO.

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