Mikko Hirvonen pulled away from title rival Sebastien Loeb today to seal victory in Sweden, the first round of the championship.
The duo blitzed everybody else in the first stage of the day – 3rd placed Dani Sordo was almost 10 seconds slower. Loeb was quickest, but only by two tenths, nowhere near enough time gain to challenge for the win.
The only other stage before service was Varmullsasen, and Loeb knew this would make or break his challenge for victory. When Hirvonen went 7.3 seconds faster than the Frenchman, he knew the battle had been lost.
“I decided to stop fighting,” said and exasperated Loeb. “There’s no change. Even on the limit, when I do no mistakes, he’s as fast as me. I prefer to try and finish second now. On this stage I make a few mistakes and had a few moments. He’s too strong here.”
The only other real news in the morning was Matthew Wilson finally starting to pull away from Mads Ostberg in the battle for 7th – they had been trading places all weekend but Wilson had finally found the edge over the Subaru driver.
The last WRC runner in the points was Petter Solberg, whose nightmare weekend was continuing further. Any chance of catching Ostberg for 8th seemed unlikely after another poor stage.
“I have a problem too,” he explained. “I’m not sure what it is but I can’t get the power down, or lean on the chassis at all. I just don’t know why.”
The next two stages saw no changes in the leaderboard – despite the bad road conditions which were ruining the metal studs on everyone’s tyres.
“The stage is all gravel, nothing else,” said Hirvonen. “I came very slowly, just to keep the tyres. Looking at the splits, it seems Sebastien is doing the same. We have to keep the tyres for the last stage. Just one to go…”
It was an easy final stage for Hirvonen, who cruised home to win his 12th WRC event and take an early advantage in the championship race.
“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,” he said. “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.”
PG Andersson wrapped up victory in the SWRC class with ease, dominating all weekend in his Skoda Fabia S2000.
“It feels fantastic to win here,” said Andersson. “We made a good start on Friday, but Saturday and today have been very tough on the brain – trying to keep focussed. I don’t have any plans yet for the rest of the season. Let’s see what happens, but I hope to come back for some more rallies.”
Janne Touhino and Martin Prokop rounded out the podium in their Ford Fiestas, with Patrik Sandell managing to hang on to 4th after Eyvind Brynildsen suffered technical problems in the morning loop.
“I took two minutes off Sandell yesterday and Friday but I had no chance left,” he explained. “The stages this morning were not good. I had rear differential problems and the brakes felt like they weren't working properly which made me cautious and I lost a lost a lot of time.”
In the PWRC class, it was more about just trying to get to the finish than winning the stages – 3 of the main contenders were having big problems.
Patrik Flodin sealed the win he had held all rally – but it looked like it could have turned out very differently.
After the morning loop he was complaining of suspension problems, and it nearly put him out of the rally.
“On SS17 my suspension was stiff and then in SS18 it started to be soft. This meant that I came close to driving into a ditch, when I moved from the gravel road to the downhill ski section when there was water all over the road and it was slippery in SS18.”
However second placed Anders Grondal was unable to capitalise on Flodin’s problem – after making a mistake of his own; “in SS18, it was hell through the downhill ski section. I didn't have any studs on my tyres and I went off into a ditch.”
Despite that off, he easily held on to 2nd place, as he was 8 minutes ahead of 3rd placed Armindo Araujo. Araujo had been plagued with handling problems all weekend – which no end of setup tweaks seemed able to fix. However when Martin Semerad hit problems in 4th place, the reigning champion had an easy ride to the final podium spot.
Consistency paid off for PWRC rookie Fabio Frisiero – it was his first ever rally on snow, and by keeping his car out of the snowbank and solidly on the stages, he inherited Semerad’s fourth place by the end of the rally.
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap 1. Mikko Hirvonen Ford 3h09m30.4s 2. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 42.3s 3. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 1m15.4s 4. Dani Sordo Citroen + 2m41.6s 5. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 4m15.3s 6. Henning Solberg Ford + 5m23.4s 7. Matthew Wilson Ford + 7m53.9s 8. Mads Ostberg Subaru + 9m22.2s 9. Petter Solberg Citroen + 10m17.5s 10. P-G Andersson Skoda + 12m08.9s