It was a very tight contest between Sebastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen across the snow and icy roads of Rally Norway. The intense fight lasted from the very first stage to the very end at the World Rally Championship's second round of the 2009 season.
Norway is enjoying a spectacular winter and with temperatures nudging -30ºC, the ice-packed roads were in perfect condition for a classic snow rally. Bone hard and lined by large snow banks, they encouraged drivers to attack. The tungsten-tipped studs in Pirelli's Sottozero tires provided amazing grip as they cut into the deep ice base and the competitors clocked speeds of more than 200 kph through the picture-postcard countryside.
Loeb led from the start—as first car on the road on all three days—to finish the rally 9.8 seconds ahead to take his 49th win in his record breaking WRC career. This gives Loeb a perfect winning record on the two rallies so far this year. As he fights for an unparalleled sixth consecutive WRC drivers’ title, Loeb leads the drivers’ standings with 20 points, six ahead of Mikko Hirvonen in second.
Snow expert Mikko Hirvonen applied persistent pressure on his rival, but Loeb was able to hold his own on the icy surfaces upon which he is not wholly at ease and secured a hard fought win.
"That's been very difficult, Mikko did a very good rally," Sebastien Loeb said after taking the win.
The Citroen Total Sport driver admitted that there was a certain amount of pressure involved as well, as "we could lose everything until the very last corner of the last stage; that's very difficult."
The Ford team's Mikko Hirvonen had mixed feelings: "Definitely I'm sad we came second but I'm glad it's finished." Speaking of Loeb, the Finn basically explained: "He was faster."
"This was the best winter rally I've competed on—and I have driven many," said Hirvonen. "It was fantastic to drive on the edge in snow and ice for three days, and to be involved in such a great battle. To be split by less than 10 seconds after more than 360 km of competition says it all. The line between making a small mistake and being perfect at those speeds is so tiny and I couldn't have done any more. I took so many risks, but we both had to do that because the competition was so close.”
"I'm disappointed to be second. I lost the rally yesterday because I couldn't respond to Loeb's speed then. It wasn't the result I wanted but I'm glad that we went down fighting and it was a hugely enjoyable battle," he added.
Latvala took hold of third place early on day one. While the 23-year-old was unable to match his teammate's pace, he was easily faster than anyone else and finished more than two minutes clear of the forth placed Focus RS WRC of Henning Solberg.
The works Ford driver spoke of a "big frustrating weekend", yet was nonetheless very happy with his position on the podium.
"I'm happy to score a podium, but at the same time disappointed not to be able to fight for victory," Latvala said. "They are good points for myself and the team but my chances really ended on Saturday morning. I should have softened the suspension settings earlier so I can look in the mirror and see the reason why I didn't challenge the top two drivers. If I could start this weekend again, I would redo the mornings. The grip level was good then and I should have trusted that and taken greater advantage.”
Behind Latvala, Stobart Ford's Henning Solberg and Citroen's Dani Sordo fought for fourth position, and completed the last stage with identical times. Solberg took fourth place, ahead of Sordo, and was very pleased with his performance at his home event: "The only thing missing is a podium!"
Petter Solberg ended up sixth on his first event as the owner and driver of the newly-founded Petter Solberg World Rally Team; a team quickly created following Subaru's WRC pullout.
The Norwegian started with a dream start, leading at Thursday evening's opening super special stage, but mechanical problems would complicate matters later on. In spite of the problems, his sixth place finish is an exceptional result for his first rally at the controls of an older Citroen Xsara WRC car with which he had little time to test before the event.
"Anything is possible" said Solberg. "I came to the finish," he added, and indeed he did.
Stobart Ford Teammates Mathew Wilson and Urmo Aava rounded out the last two points paying places in seventh and eighth.
The next round of the World Rally Championship will take place in very different surroundings from those encountered in wintry Norway: the asphalt and gravel event of Rally Cyprus will take place in mid-March.
1. S Loeb/D Elena Citroen C4 3 hr 28 min 15.9 sec
2. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen Ford Focus RS 3 hr 28 min 25.7 sec
3. J-M Latvala/M Anttila Ford Focus RS 3 hr 29 min 37.7 sec
4. H Solberg/C Menkerud Ford Focus RS 3 hr 31 min 49.4 sec
5. D Sordo/M Marti Citroen C4 3 hr 32 min 07.9 sec
6. P Solberg/P Mills Citroen Xsara 3 hr 34 min 41.3 sec
7. M Wilson/S Martin Ford Focus RS 3 hr 34 min 51.5 sec
8. U Aava/K Sikk Ford Focus RS 3 hr 35 min 05.0 sec
9. M Østberg/O Unnerud Subaru Impreza 3 hr 38 min 16.4 sec
10 S Ogier/J Ingrassia Citroen C4 3 hr 41 min 05.7 sec
1. S Loeb 20 pts
2. M Hirvonen 14 pts
3. D Sordo 12 pts
4. H Solberg 10 pts
5. J-M Latvala 6 pts
6. C Atkinson 4 pts
1. Citroen Total 32 pts
2. BP Ford Abu Dhabi 22 pts
3. Stobart VK M-Sport Ford 16 pts
4. Citroen Junior Team 8 pts