ord World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen claimed a podium finish at Rally de Espaņa on Sunday to retain the lead of the FIA World Rally Championship, and therefore set up an exciting final round showdown later this month.
The Finns' third place in a Ford
Focus RS World Rally Car on the flowing asphalt roads of Catalonia means they will journey to the last round in Great Britain with a one-point advantage in the drivers' standings.
Teammates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished sixth in another Focus RS WRC after three days' demanding competition in the hills near Salou, south of Barcelona. The smooth roads were similar to a race circuit in their characteristics and dry conditions for all but a few kilometres on Friday morning ensured consistent grip from Pirelli's hard compound tyres. Competitors tackled 18 speed tests covering 353.62km.
Hirvonen, for whom asphalt is his least favourite surface, was realistic about his chances of extending his four-event winning streak against sealed surface experts. The 29-year-old set his sights on a podium to maintain his championship lead. He eased into third on the opening morning and when it became clear that he could not catch the drivers ahead, he settled for third and solid points.
"I'm a bit disappointed because I wanted second place but third keeps me in the lead of the championship," said Hirvonen. "It took me longer to get used to asphalt than I would have liked but I learned a lot and I think I now know what I need to do to improve my pace here next year.
"For the last two days I've driven at a safe speed, at a pace which was sufficient to keep Petter Solberg behind me in fourth. That was the sensible thing to do with the title in mind.
"All I can think about now is going to Great Britain for the final round," Hirvonen continued. "I'm really looking forward to it because it should be a fantastic weekend. Whoever finishes highest there between myself and Sebastien Loeb
will take the title, and what an exciting way to end the season that will be!"
Latvala was a model of consistency throughout. He finished sixth in 13 of the 18 special stages to establish a firm grip on sixth overall.
He experimented with different set-up specifications on his Focus RS WRC and his speed increased as the weekend progressed. The 24-year-old finished on a high by winning the final test of the rally.
"That was a good feeling after a tough weekend and it's my first fastest time in Spain," he said. "My speed here wasn't as fast as I expected but I drove sensibly and carefully and improved with every day and every stage. I'm looking forward to getting back onto gravel in Britain later this month. I enjoy that rally and hope I can play a part in an exciting end to the championship."
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 14th in another Focus RS WRC after retiring during the first day with a fractured exhaust manifold. They returned under SupeRally rules and climbed from 42nd with a string of consistently strong times during the final two days.
"Being from the Middle East, I'm used to sand and gravel terrain so driving on asphalt always requires more concentration as I'm not so familiar with the surface," said Al Qassimi. "I'm really happy with how I performed in the last two days. I enjoyed the stages and felt that my driving was smooth."
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on a solid weekend for the team.
"It's a good result for Mikko to finish on the podium in what has been quite a tricky rally," he said. "To leave Spain still leading the championship and to head to Britain with just a point separating the top drivers means we should see a fantastic battle there.
"Jari-Matti played a good team role and improved his pace throughout the weekend, culminating in a stage win on the final test," Wilson pointed out.
The final round of the season is Rally of Great Britain, which will be fought out over fast gravel roads in south and mid-Wales. The rally is based in Cardiff and runs from 22-25 October.