Hirvonen begins WRC season with victory for Ford in Sweden
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen started the 2010 FIA World Rally Championship in style with victory in Rally Sweden today. The Finns won the opening round by 42.3sec in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car after three days' competition in the ice-bound Scandinavian forests. The win moved Ford level at the top of the all-time standings with 74 WRC victories.

Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished third in a similar Focus RS WRC, 1min 15.4sec behind their fellow Finns. The double podium gives the BP Ford Abu Dhabi squad a 10-point lead at the top of the manufacturers' standings after the first of 13 rounds.

Rally Sweden is the only true winter rally in the series. Drivers tackled 21 speed tests covering 345.15km in the Värmland region of central Sweden. Temperatures plunged to -22ºC, but clear blue skies provided picture postcard scenery in the wintry forests. Snow covered the tracks in the barren Scandinavian countryside, but beneath lay a softer than expected ice base. Exposed gravel poked through during the second pass over the roads and posed tough challenges for drivers, as they struggled to prevent stones ripping the tungsten-tipped studs from their tyres to leave little grip.

Hirvonen's tyre management played a crucial part in his victory. After making minor set-up changes to his Focus RS WRC, the 29-year-old ended Friday's first leg with a 6.2sec lead. He stretched that to 16.6sec yesterday when his decision to fit new Pirelli Sottozero rubber to the front of his car in the middle of the afternoon enabled him to blitz closest rival Sébastien Loeb by 16sec in two stages. He measured his pace through today's final leg to secure his 12th WRC win.

"After losing the title last year by a point I knew I had to win more, rather than settle for consistent points finishes, so this is the ideal start," said Hirvonen. "It was a big win for us and I want many more this season. It's the first time I've won the opening round of the year. I tried to be more aggressive from the start in all aspects of my performance. It was a brave decision yesterday to change the tyres when I did but it paid off and those kind of decisions make the difference between winning and losing.

"It was such a hard rally for the tyres on the exposed gravel and you can't imagine how nervous I was driving the final stage. I have a year's more experience of a title battle than this time last year and I think that showed here. I need to continue in the same way for the rest of the season," he added.

Latvala, handed the role of supporting Hirvonen, did his job to perfection. The 24-year-old settled into fourth on the opening day but was frustrated at being unable to find the speed of which he knew he was capable. He made minor set-up changes yesterday and pressured third-placed Dani Sordo into two mistakes to climb into a podium position. Latvala took no risks today and, with the pressure removed, he relaxed into his driving and was fastest over the final two tests to take his tally to five stage wins.

"This result is a great boost to my confidence," he said. "I did what I was asked by keeping my consistency and it's a great start for the team. It wasn't an easy rally because I struggled for speed on Friday. I was frustrated because I was thinking too much about driving carefully but I got over that yesterday, started to relax and my times improved."

Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 13th in the team's other Focus RS WRC. "I wanted to learn over the course of this rally, and I feel I have achieved this. I had little experience in these conditions, but as the rally progressed I have grown in confidence. There were some surprises on the stages, some tight corners and good action, but I enjoyed it," said Al Qassimi.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson hailed Hirvonen's victory. "His drive on the second leg yesterday was by far his best performance in the way he managed both the day and, particularly, his tyres. He is putting his experience to good use. He has progressed steadily over the years to the point that he is now beating the world's best driver. Jari-Matti played the perfect support role to Mikko and I could not have imagined a better start to the season," he said.

Ford of Europe motorsport chief Gerard Quinn said: "It was important to get out of the starting blocks quickly this year and that's exactly what we achieved with a thoroughly professional performance from the whole team in the most arduous working conditions. We lead both championships and this victory puts Ford within one win of becoming the sport's most successful manufacturer."

News from other Ford teams

Stobart M-Sport Ford's Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor finished sixth in a Focus RS WRC, one place ahead of team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin. Returning double world champion Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen were 21st after a troubled rally, but nevertheless claimed manufacturers' championship points for the team.

Next round

The championship switches to gravel next month for the first of four rounds outside Europe. Rally Mexico is based in León on 4 - 7 March.

Final positions
1. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Focus RS 3hr 09min 30.4sec
2. S Loeb/D Elena FRA Citroen C4 3hr 10min 12.7sec
3. J-M Latvala/M Anttila FIN Ford Focus RS 3hr 10min 45.8sec
4. D Sordo/M Marti ESP Citroen C4 3hr 12min 12.0sec
5. S Ogier/J Ingrassia FRA Citroen C4 3hr 13min 45.7sec
6. H Solberg/I Minor NOR Ford Focus RS 3hr 15min 23.8sec
7. M Wilson/S Martin GBR Ford Focus RS 3hr 17min 24.3sec
8. M Østberg/J Andersson NOR Subaru Impreza 3hr 18min 52.6sec
9. P Solberg/P Mills NOR Citroen C4 3hr 19min 47.9sec
10 P-G Andersson/A Fredriksson SWE Skoda Fabia 3hr 21min 49.3sec

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