Hirvonen nets podium for Ford in WRC season-opener in Ireland
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished third on the opening round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Ireland today. The Finns, driving a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, overcame treacherous conditions after more than 48 hours of incessant rain flooded Rally Ireland's speed tests. It was the pair's 10th podium from the last 12 rallies.

Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila recovered from a first day accident to finish 14th in their Focus RS WRC, sufficient to claim manufacturer points for Ford, which lies second in the standings. Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr were eighth in the team's third car, as five Focus RS WRCs finished in the top 10. It was the Abu Dhabi's driver first-ever point.

The three-day rally was based in Sligo, in the Republic of Ireland, but the rally snaked its way back and forth across the border into Northern Ireland. The asphalt speed tests covered a mix of flowing mountain roads and bumpy, narrow farm lanes. But perhaps the biggest challenge was the weather as continuous rain during the opening two days left standing water in many places and forced the cancellation of two tests on Friday. Drivers tackled 17 special stages covering 327.28km.

Such was the state of the roads that for much of the rally Hirvonen and Latvala used Pirelli's Sottozero winter tyre to provide better grip. More accustomed to being used in snow and ice, the tyre pattern nevertheless provided excellent traction in the rain-soaked stages. Only when the rain stopped and blue skies appeared for today's final leg did the Ford drivers revert to the standard soft compound tyre.

Hirvonen settled into third on the opening leg and challenged Dani Sordo for second until a power steering problem yesterday morning ended his hopes of moving up. With a comfortable margin over his pursuers, 28-year-old Hirvonen elected to ease his pace and settle for third. Nevertheless he won four of five today's speed tests, including a spectacular stage through the streets of Donegal town which was broadcast live on TV, to take his tally for the event to five.

"This is the more difficult of the two asphalt events in the calendar and six points is a good start to the year," said Hirvonen. "I'm pleased with that but would have been even happier with more. Conditions were quite extreme with so much water during the opening two days. Today there wasn't so much water, but it was just as slippery because the roads were muddy instead of just wet. It's a shame about our power steering problem because it meant I couldn't fight with Dani to the end."

Latvala powered into the lead on Friday's opening stage but lost control of his Focus RS WRC on the next stage and hit a rock. The impact broke his car's driveshaft and track control arm and he was forced into retirement for the day. He restarted yesterday under SupeRally rules and concentrated on rebuilding his confidence, maintaining a steady pace to climb from 25th to 14th to take vital points.

"I've had an up and down weekend," he said. "I felt I let the team down on Friday because I came here to get good points and I only scored a few. But the past is the past, and I hope I have learned from it and don't get so excited when I'm leading in the future. This weekend was a good experience in difficult conditions and two points is better than none. After my accident I concentrated on driving cautiously but it's hard to generate the same kind of feeling in those circumstances."

Al Qassimi hit a tree on the opening day but was overjoyed to score his maiden WRC point. "I've been pushing hard all week and to score my first point in such a difficult rally gives me a lot of confidence. We're trying to put Abu Dhabi on the rally map and being the first United Arab Emirates driver to score a WRC point has always been one of the goals. I'm happy I've been able to keep progressing and justify the faith shown in me. Hopefully I'll win more points before the end of the season," he said.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said: "Both drivers claimed fastest times on their least favourite surface and both have gained in experience and know-how in very difficult conditions. I'm pleased Jari-Matti fought back from his first day problems and delighted also for Khalid."

Ford of Europe motorsport director Mark Deans added: "This rally was all about maximising manufacturer points in an event which was less likely to favour our drivers. As we look ahead to the next round in Norway, I'm confident we can reverse that situation. To have five Focus RS WRCs finishing in the top 10 is a testament to its speed, strength and reliability. Of particular note was Khalid's impressive performance, securing his and his country's first WRC point."

News from our Rivals
After claiming the lead on the first afternoon, Sťbastien Loeb (Citroen) was never headed and led home team-mate Dani Sordo by 1min 27.9sec, despite a scare on the penultimate stage when he briefly slid off the road. Behind Hirvonen, Chris Atkinson (Citroen) passed Stobart driver Henning Solberg (Ford) for fourth on this morning's opening stage. But the Australian slipped off the road for a minute in the penultimate test and allowed Solberg to regain the place. The top six was rounded off by 2008 JWRC champion Sťbastien Ogier (Citroen). There were no major retirements today.

Next round
The championship moves to Norway later this month for the only true winter rally of the season. Rally Norway (12 - 15 February) is based in Hamar with the speed tests held on snow and ice.

Final Leaderboard
1. S Loeb/D Elena (F) CitroŽn C4 2h48m25.7s
2. D Sordo/M Marti (E) CitroŽn C4 +1m27.9s
3. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen (FIN) Ford Focus RS +2m07.8s
4. H Solberg/C Menkerud (N) Ford Focus RS +6m32.4s
5. C Atkinson/S Prevot (AUS) CitroŽn C4 +7m51.9s
6. S Ogier/J Ingrassia (F) CitroŽn C4 +10m44s
7. M Wilson/S Martin (GB) Ford Focus RS +11m23.8s
8. K Al Qassimi/M Orr (UAE) Ford Focus RS +14m07.9s
9. E Boland/D Morrissey (IRL) Subaru Impreza +15m23.4s
10. U Aava/K Sikk (EST) Ford Focus RS +15m35.4s

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