Ford World Rally Team driver Mikko Hirvonen fulfilled a childhood dream by winning Rally Finland in front of his home town fans in Jyvaskyla on Sunday.
Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen won the legendary rally by 25.1sec in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to extend
their lead in the FIA World Rally Championship to three points with three rounds remaining.
It was Hirvonen's third straight rally win following Poland and Greece, and with the addition of Jari-Matti Latvala's Sardinian success, it was the Ford team's fourth consecutive victory of the 2009 season.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila joined their fellow Finns on the podium by claiming third place in their Focus RS WRC. Latvala fought off a severe stomach upset on Saturday to claim a maiden podium on his home rally.
The results enabled Ford to close the gap on the leaders in the manufacturers' world title fight to 14 points, and ended a perfect week in which Ford announced it would extend its commitment to the World Rally Championship for a further two years into 2010 and 2011.
Rally Finland, round nine in the 12-event championship, is the fastest rally in the series. Famous for its awesome roller-coaster jumps, Latvala topped the speed chart by winning the penultimate special stage at a remarkable average of 131.56kph.
Few of the 23 gravel speed tests covering 345.15km overall fell below a 120kph average and even when heavy rain fell on Saturday morning during the second leg, speeds remained high as the rock-hard road surface softened to provide even better grip.
Hirvonen, who celebrated his 29th birthday during the first leg on Friday, added his name to the illustrious list of drivers who have mastered the sport's truest test of precision driving and bravery by leading for all but the first couple of kilometres. He steadily pulled away from closest rival Sebastien Loeb
and when the Frenchman damaged a tyre Saturday afternoon, Hirvonen was able to measure his pace, reduce the risks and take an emotional victory in front of his family and friends.
"I've watched this rally since I was a kid and now I have won here myself and joined so many of the sport's legends who have won here," said an overjoyed Hirvonen.
"It's such a fantastic sensation to win my home rally that I can't put my feelings into words. It has been such a great weekend for the team that there will be big celebrations tonight.
"I felt in control throughout the rally. It was a great battle with Loeb and when he had a problem, I could afford to take it a little bit easier," Hirvonen added.
Latvala held fourth for most of the opening leg but his chances of improving looked slim when a stomach upset left him drained of energy Saturday morning and unable to drive at full speed. However, the 24-year-old quickly recovered and as his health improved, so did his stage times. He received the ideal tonic by climbing into third position during the afternoon and maintained a fast but cautious pace for the rest of the rally to secure a podium place by 16.2sec.
"It's one of the highlights of my career to finish on the podium on my home rally," he said. "After my mistake on the final stage in Poland last month, I was under the biggest pressure of my life here and it took time to regain my rhythm and confidence. Then I fell ill, but overtaking Dani Sordo to move into third was a turning point and my times became better and better.
"I feel I have grown up mentally since Poland and my role for the rest of the season is to support Mikko's drivers' title challenge in the way I did here," Latvala declared.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished ninth in the team's other Focus RS WRC. "Five of the top 10 finishers were Finns so to take ninth is a credit to the team," said Al Qassimi.
For the next WRC round, scheduled for 3-6 September, Rally Australia returns to the series for the first time since 2006. The new-look event has crossed the country to the east coast and is now based in Kingscliff, New South Wales.