Sebastien Loeb's unbeaten run in the 2009 World Rally Championship was ended by Jari-Matti Latvala at the World Rally Championship’s Rally Sardinia.
The Finn has turned his troubled season around which was a string of mistakes, including a ferocious accident in Portugal that saw his car roll 17 times down the side of a cliff.
"It is a big relief," said Latvala. "It was a great thing that I was able to win this rally, it really means a lot to me. It's been unbelievable, but I have also been a little bit lucky with things being on my side. This has come at a really important point."
Road order was expected to be a major factor this weekend and Latvala benefited from his seventh place in the starting line up to lead on Friday, while Loeb and Hirvonen both deliberately slowed at the end of the first day to have more favorable conditions for Saturday. Latvala pressed harder and ended the day 40 seconds in front.
While Hirvonen closed the gap to 9 seconds during leg two, Loeb's challenge for victory ended when he was delayed by a puncture which cost the Citroen driver a minute to change.
On the final day it looked like Hirvonen could pass Latvala before the finish, but running first on the road became an advantage rather than a disadvantage, as dust hung in the very still morning air and ruined visibility for those chasing Latvala. The young Finn pulled away again.
"The dust was a surprise and I was lucky with that. This is a very important win for me. I've had many unhappy moments since my first win, but now I'm back on the top step of the podium. I was starting to question my role in the team but I've proved the team's confidence in me was right and I thank Malcolm Wilson (team director) for that. You saw a new evolution of Jari-Matti here," he added.
Hirvonen struggled with a fever during the rally and 28-year-old was exhausted at the finish. "I have no energy and I've never felt so tired after a rally," he said. "This result, and the timing of it, is perfect for Ford. I thought I could fight for the win but the dust ended those hopes. Everyone behind Jari-Matti expected to have an advantage because he was sweeping the road but, ironically, he was the one who benefited because of the dust. I went off the road on a fifth gear corner in the first stage this morning because I couldn't see so I stopped taking risks.
"Jari-Matti deserves the win after his problems this season and I'm delighted for him. We had a great pre-rally test and the work we did there paid off on the event itself," he added.
Malcolm Wilson, team director for the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, as expected, had nothing but praise for his drivers. "They coped with whatever was thrown at them. It's a dream to see Jari-Matti win after a difficult year and I'm delighted to see him full of confidence. Mikko did an outstanding job and if the conditions were different this morning, there could have been a different winner. It was a great team effort and my thanks go to everyone involved," he said.
Loeb recovered to third, beating Petter Solberg on the final loop, but the world champion's was later accessed a two minute penalty because his co-driver Daniel Elena unfastened his safety belts while their car was still in motion when they stopped to change a punctured tire on SS11 on Saturday. The penalty dropped him to fourth on final results.
Loeb's team-mate Dani Sordo was never a factor, due to turbo problems of varying severity on all three days and a damaging rock impact on Friday.
Solberg did not give up third without a fight, but had to settle for fourth, 14 seconds behind Loeb later inheriting third, after Loeb’s penalty.
The series moves into its second half at the Acropolis Rally of Greece on 11 - 14 June.
Pos Driver Car Time
1. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford 4h00m55.7s
2. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 29.4s
3. Petter Solberg Citroen + 1m57.6s
4. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 3m43.7s
5. Evgeny Novikov Citroen + 5m11.8s
6. Matthew Wilson Ford + 7m29.3s
7. Mads Ostberg Subaru + 13m20.6s
8. Henning Solberg Ford + 13m21.2s
9. Conrad Rautenbach Citroen + 19m31.1s
10. Nasser Al-Attiyah Subaru + 19m43.7s
Quotes and Photo: BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team
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