BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila claimed a battling podium finish in Rally Japan today after an exciting four-car fight for victory in this 10th round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The Finns lost the lead of the rally yesterday afternoon with a mechanical problem and a spin, but recovered superbly on today’s final leg to finish third in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. Latvala’s podium provided a suitable ending for Anttila, who celebrated his 100th WRC start here and his 38th birthday last Friday.
Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen started today’s third and final leg north-east of the rally base in Sapporo in second place, just 3.7sec from the lead. However, difficulties with the hydraulic pump in their Focus RS WRC cost the Finns time throughout the day and they eventually finished sixth. The Ford duo won seven speed tests, Latvala claiming four wins and Hirvonen three.
Rally Japan returned to the championship after a year’s absence. Fast, undulating and narrow gravel tracks provided a tough challenge for competitors in the Do-oh region of Hokkaido, the country’s most northerly island. They completed 26 speed tests, covering 303.54km, including eight passes around a test inside the 67,400 capacity Sapporo Dome, usually the venue for top-flight soccer and baseball.
Latvala was fourth after the opening leg but a determined charge yesterday morning carried the 25-year-old into a slender lead. He extended his advantage until a broken front right driveshaft and a spin in the penultimate test at the Dome dropped him to fifth. However, Latvala fought back on today’s final leg over eight special stages and 55.68km. Fastest time in the second pass through the day’s longest stage promoted the Focus RS WRC pilot to third, and he remained there to the finish.
“It’s been a strange weekend,” he said. “On Friday I was a little off the pace initially but yesterday I climbed back to lead. Then I dropped back and I thought my chances of a good result had gone, but now I’m on the podium. After all that I have to be happy to finish third, even if I’m surprised.
“I took third place by winning the second pass through the long stage. I had a great rhythm and everything flowed perfectly. It was difficult to get back into the rhythm of driving on gravel having driven an asphalt rally since my win in Finland, but once I overcame that on Friday then I had good speed here,” added Latvala.
Hirvonen ended Friday’s opening leg in second and, despite a spin on yesterday’s opening test, the 30-year-old closed the gap on the leader to just 3.7sec by last night. However, a problem with his car’s hydraulic pump meant both the semi-automatic gearchange and the centre differential did not work properly throughout the day. With no opportunity to make repairs, he dropped time to eventually finish 1min 13.5sec behind the winner.
“I drove eight stages today with the gearchange and centre differential not working and that was difficult, especially on the twisty sections,” he said. “When the car slowed in the twisty sections and under braking I couldn’t keep the revs high enough to use the paddle shift gearchange and had to use the manual version. When I could keep the engine above 5000rpm, then the paddle shift was fine.
“But after a series of difficult rallies, it was good to be back on the pace for the first two days and fighting for the lead. The battle for victory was so close on Friday and Saturday that it was flat out all the way and it’s great to be part of such a big fight,” he added,
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said the result wasn’t what he had hoped, but he was heartened by the pace of both drivers. “Jari-Matti’s performance today was outstanding. I’m upset about his driveshaft failure because it cost a win. It was encouraging to see Mikko back in the battle with fastest times and both displayed pace that, with better luck, could have brought a win,” he said.
Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: “It was encouraging that we led the rally, but also disappointing that bad luck denied us a win. However, when we look at the way in which Jari-Matti recovered from his mechanical problem to gain a podium and Mikko’s return to top form, it’s clear from the seven stage wins that we have again displayed our competitive consistency.”
News from other Ford teams
Stobart M-Sport Ford’s Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor finished seventh in a Focus RS WRC while team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin were 22nd, after restarting today under SupeRally rules after spinning into a ditch yesterday morning. Munchi’s Ford duo Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc were eighth. Ford Fiesta S2000 cars took first and second in the S-WRC support category. Jari Ketomaa and Mika Stenberg beat Martin Prokop and Jan Tomanek by 33.7sec.
The championship returns to asphalt later this month with a new-look Rallye de France. The rally has moved from its traditional home on the island of Corsica and will be based in Strasbourg on 30 September – 3 October.
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