‘Home’Boy Hirvonen Steering Abu Dhabi’s Finnish Glory Drive
Championship leader hot-on-the-heels of leader Loeb as Latvala crashes out UAE’s Al Qassimi running well in 18th

Jyväskylä, Finland. 1st August 2008: With the world’s best battling it out in Rally Finland – round nine of the 15 event World Rally Championship series - BP-Ford Abu Dhabi’s Finnish star, Mikko Hirvonen, and Citroen’s Sébastien Loeb, have emerged as the ones to watch as they resume their drivers’ title tussle in the picturesque town of Jyvaskala this weekend.

The duo, who have been jostling for top spot all season, kicked off proceedings in the sport’s ‘spiritual home’ when they were paired up in Thursday’s 2.06km Super Special Stage.

In what was the race of the night, Abu Dhabi-backed Hirvonen - who holds a three point drivers’ standings lead over Loeb - was pipped at the post by Citroen’s six-time WRC title winner, finishing just 0.4 seconds behind the Frenchman in the Rally Finland’s spectator-rich speed test.

And the battle continued as the drivers took to the opening stages on Friday. A heavy shower before the cars started was just what the front runners wanted as it bound together the loose gravel and helped Hirvonen and Loeb clock up the fields’ quickest times.

In an event where non-Finns usually struggle, Loeb showed his class as he led through the opening five stages.

However, with Rally Finland widely considered the WRC’s fastest event, Hirvonen produced some break-neck stage times to finish second on both runs of the 17.16km Vellipohja stage, the 11.38 km Mokkipera pass and the 13.90km Palsankyla gravel test to sit just 6.6 seconds behind the enigmatic Frenchman at the leg one midpoint.

And the afternoon’s sessions delivered more of the same. The Mokkipera stage revisit remarkably saw the two drivers clock exactly the same times as Hirvonen maintained the pressure on Loeb. However, returning to Palsankyla wasn’t as rewarding as Hirvonen had a slower run and dropped an additional 2.5 seconds before returning to the Jyvaskala base for the second service of the day.

Determined not to give up, the Finn came out firing on all cylinders and set a blistering stage eight time of 6:00.5, the first time he has outpaced the Frenchman this week, to claw back some of his lead. Loeb responded in the short, 7.87km Lautapera stage to regain the fastest time before dominating the final leg of the day to open up an overall lead of 13.1 seconds over Hirvonen.

However, BP-Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team’s rising Finnish star, Jari-Matti Latvala, didn’t have as much luck as his older teammate, and he was forced to retire from Rally Finland’s Leg One after crashing out in Mokkipera 1(Stage 3).

The rapid 23 year old, identified by rally legend Marcus Gronholm as a potential future world champion, damaged his steering arm after an awkward landing on one of the Mokkipera’s soaring blind crests and was unable to continue.

Facing a 45 minute time penalty when he re-starts Leg Two on Saturday, Latvala – the World Rally Championship’s break-through 2008 performer - appears well out of the running in the hunt to pick up drivers’ standing points in Jyvaskala.

However, the young Finn can still claim vital manufacturers’ series points in Rally Finland - dubbed the Gravel Grand Prix due to its lightening quick stages. A Latvala recovery is vital to the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority-backed outfit’s quest for a third consecutive manufacturers’ title; the team currently holds a nine point lead over Citroen.

And with Latvala out of the running, eyes were diverted to UAE national, Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi’s attempts to maintain the team’s momentum.

Al Qassmi, driving as part of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority’s marquee partnership with BP-Ford, put in an impressive Leg One display to enter the Jyvaskala Service Park at the end of a gruelling first day in 18th place overall.

Erring on the side of caution, the Emirati star, who’s celebrating his one year anniversary in the WRC with Abu Dhabi this weekend, was clearly looking to rebuild his confidence and rhythm after the championship’s seven week summer hiatus.

Dubbed the Gravel Grand Prix, Rally Finland is one of the most specialised events on the WRC calendar. With familiarity the key, drivers’ who have grown up racing in Scandinavia’s winding gravel roads hold a distinct advantage, illustrated by the fact that only half a dozen non-Finns have won the rally in its 57 year history.

Hirvonen clinched his best ever Rally Finland result last year with a second place finish, and is widely tipped to push for the win as he competes in his ‘home event’.

Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi

“I am just getting the feeling back after the break. Everyone is pushing hard and we are giving a lot. Today was really good and I was very happy with my times on these rapid stages. This is a very, very fast rally and on the open sections we gave it everything, but maybe I backed off a little on some of the more aggressive jumps.

“Today was really about getting to the end and building confidence. The changing weather conditions meant I had to adapt my driving in some areas. I tried to go full out on some of the later stages but there were times when I eased off a little as the road became extremely slippery.

“It’s hard to know what to expect and there are rocks and objects on the road that can end your run, so you have to try and prepare as much as possible and be extra aware of the road ahead.

“Given the speed you need to maintain on these narrow stages, you need to have maximum commitment to ensure you are up there competing. Anything can happen on these stages and it can happen to anyone. This is a long rally and we still have so far to go. I just want to pace myself and make sure I am finishing stages and avoiding problems whenever possible.

“I am in good position going into leg two so I need to keep the momentum that I built up today. For me, it is all about completing the rally on Sunday and putting in a solid show, and hopefully, I’ll be up there.”

Mikko Hirvonen
“I’ve enjoyed a good battle with Sébastien Loeb and I’m pleased with the way it has gone. The first stage was quite wet while the others were damp, but I had no rain on the stages. It was slippery in the gravel on the drier roads but I don’t think Loeb had any advantages by starting one position behind me. But I expected the cars further down the order to be quicker. I drove well in the fast sections but I was too cautious in the junctions, so I needed to up my game.

“I had a better feeling in the afternoon but it's not perfect because Loeb is still ahead of me. I don't want the gap to get any bigger and, although I'm enjoying the fight, it's a little frustrating because I'm not winning at the moment. Road position isn't an issue today because it rained this morning, so it doesn't make any difference whether I am first or second in the start order. I changed the balance of the car at service but it didn't make any difference and I also carried a second spare tyre, which I didn't carry this morning, because I wanted a little more weight in the car."

Jari-Matti Latvala
"I approached a left-right-left combination of bends and decided to keep the car as straight as I could. But I hit a rock, which wasn't in my pace notes, with the front right of the car. The handling felt strange immediately afterwards and suddenly I was thrown off the road into the ditch where the car half-rolled and hit a small tree. The data shows I was doing 117kph when I went off…."

Day 1 Leaderboard
1. S Loeb/D Elena 1h04m57.9ss
2. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen +14.4s
3. H Solberg/C Menkerud +53.1s
4. G Galli/G Bernacchini +56.2s
5. D Sordo/M Marti +1m05.4s
6. P Solberg/P Mills +1m37.8s
7. C Atkinson/S Prevot +1m41.1s
8. P G Andersson/J Andersson +2m20.4s
9. M Rantanen/J Löengren +2m27.2s
10. T Gardemeister/T Tuominen +2m26.6s

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