February 19, 2007 With Sebastien Loeb’s almost total dominance in recent years, the World Rally Championship (WRC) has taken on a pall of inevitability, but as we all know, nothing lasts forever on the sporting field. Ford has been forging a dynasty of reliability and competitiveness at WRC level for decades, but had not won a manufacturers championship for 26 years until sheer weight of points finishes overcame Loeb and Citroen last year. This year the BP-Ford World Rally Team has started the season so well that it could be poised to challenge for the dirvers title in 2007 too. The team took a decisive lead in the WRC after dominating Rally Norway with the Focus RS World Rally Car to finish first and second yesterday. Mikko Hirvonen (driver first) and Jarmo Lehtinen (navigator second) led from start to finish to claim their second WRC victory, finishing 9.5sec ahead of team-mates and fellow Finns Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen. It was BP-Ford's second win in consecutive weeks after Grönholm triumphed in Sweden seven days ago and powered the reigning manufacturers' world champions into a 16 point lead after three of the 16 rounds. Gronholm moved to the head of the drivers' series, four points clear of Hirvonen. As always, the Scandinavian rounds with their spectacular yumps (high speeds on ice and snow with sudden dropaways lead to 100 mph flying cars) make for another awesome image library.
Focus RS cars completed a clean sweep of the podium places as Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud, driving for the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team, finished third to match their career-best result. It was the first time Ford has filled all three podium places since 1979 when Hannu Mikkola led a trio of Escorts into the top three in Rally New Zealand, 356 rallies ago.
Huge crowds packed the Norwegian countryside north of Oslo to celebrate their country's first appearance in the WRC and the biggest sporting event in Norway since the 1994 Winter Olympics. Three days of rugged driving in treacherous conditions in the forests near Kongsvinger and the hills around Lillehammer demanded impeccable reliability from the Focus RS cars and the utmost skill from Hirvonen and Grönholm. They faced deep snow, ice, fog and rain during the 18 speed tests covering 355.99km but held the top two positions from the opening kilometre.
Hirvonen started the third leg with a 19.3sec advantage over his 39-year-old team-mate. With their closest pursuers almost 3min 30sec behind, the BP-Ford duo could afford to pace themselves through the final four special stages covering 97.10km. Grönholm ended the event in style by winning the final test, his fourth of the rally. Hirvonen also claimed four stage wins.
"I'm so relieved the rally is over," said 26-year-old Hirvonen. "I've led since the start and battled with Marcus and Loeb since Friday morning. I've beaten them both here fair and square after a great fight. Although I won in Australia last year, I didn't have to overcome their challenge then so I regard this as my first 'real' WRC win. It certainly made a difference that this was a new rally. Nobody had previous experience of the stages and that made things more equal.
"Neither Marcus nor I had to drive at maximum speed today. But in those circumstances it's easy to relax and make a mistake. I tried to concentrate on every single corner and followed Marcus' split times. The stages were so enjoyable but at the same time they were extremely difficult. Yesterday we had blizzard conditions on one test and I don't think I've ever driven a stage like that," he added.
Grönholm has now finished on the podium on all three rallies this season. "I'm leading the drivers' championships and BP-Ford leads the manufacturers' series so it doesn't get any better," he said. "It was a difficult weekend with plenty of snow and narrow roads. I wasn't completely happy with my own performance because I couldn't find a perfect rhythm. But looking at the last two weeks as a whole, I have to be happy to take a win and a second place," he said.
It was a perfect birthday weekend for BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson, who was 51 yesterday. "It was an intense three days but this is a fantastic result. Mikko led from the start and was under pressure throughout. He held his pace and never looked like losing his lead. Once Loeb lost time we had a big advantage and it would have been crazy to let Mikko and Marcus battle it out. We told them to hold position, make no mistakes and bring home maximum points," he said.
Ford TeamRS director Jost Capito was delighted with the Blue Oval's clean sweep of the podium. "It's a great moment for Ford," he said. "We hoped there would be the opportunity to claim the top three places at some point during the season but we never expected it to happen this early. It's a perfect reflection of how competitive the Focus RS WRC is." Norway's Solberg brothers delighted the fans with an exciting battle for third. Petter (Subaru) held a 9.9sec lead over Henning (Ford) last night. But Petter struggled with studs that were too short for the snowy conditions and Henning moved ahead on the opening test and held his advantage, despite stalling at the start of the final stage. Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) brought his Focus RS home in fifth. The battle between Manfred Stohl (Citroen) and Gigi Galli (Citroen) for sixth ended when Stohl went off the road for 10 minutes on the final stage. Xavi Pons (Mitsubishi) and Daniel Carlsson (Citroen) battled hard throughout the day until Pons crashed out on the last test. Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) set two fastest times today to finish 14th and take the final manufacturers' point.
Next round, the championship moves onto gravel, the series' dominant surface, and out of Europe for the first time this season for round four. Rally Mexico is based in León on 8 - 11 March.
Final positions - Rally Norway
1. M Hirvonen (Fin) / J Lehtinen (Fin) : Ford Focus RS 3hr 28min 17.0sec
2. M Grönholm (Fin) / T Rautiainen (Fin) : Ford Focus RS +0:09.5
3. H Solberg (Nor) / C Menkerud (Nor) : Ford Focus +3:44.6
4. P Solberg (Nor) / P Mills (GB) : Subaru Impreza +4:01.1
5. J-M Latvala (Fin) / M Anttila (Fin) : Ford Focus RS +5:30.7
6. G Galli (Ita) / G Bernacchini (Ita) : Citroen Xsara +7:05.2
7. D Carlsson (Swe) / D Giraudet (Fra) : Citroen Xsara +9:23.7
8. J Kopecky (Cz) / F Schovanek (Cz) : Skoda Fabia +11:49.9
1. M Grönholm 24pts
2. M Hirvonen 20pts
3. S Loeb 18pts
4. H Solberg 11pts
5. D Sordo 8pts
6. P Solberg 8pts
1. BP-Ford 44pts
2. Citroen Total 28pts
3. Stobart VK M-Sport Ford 16pts
4. Subaru 15pts
5. OMV Kronos Citroen 14pts