KINGSCLIFF // Hours after absorbing a potentially crucial dent to his drivers' championship prospects, BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen was gifted a shock Rally Australia victory late last night. According to a statement from the organisers, a post-event scrutineering report from the FIA Technical Delegate stated the front anti-roll bar of "car number one" - Sebastien Loeb's Citroen - did not comply with the homologation form of the car.
Following frantic discussions by Loeb's team representatives, Citroen agreed the part differed with the homologation photo, according to the statement. Citroen also verified that both Dani Sordo and Sebastien Ogier's cars were fitted with the identical parts following which the stewards decided to levy a one-minute penalty on the trio for the technical infringement. The punishment, to which Citroen did not appeal, saw Hirvonen leapfrog Loeb, and his fifth-placed teammate Jari-Matti Latvala trade fourth place with Ogier. Sordo remained third.
The revised results mean Hirvonen extended his lead in driver's standings over Loeb by five points, while Ford reduced Citroen's manufacturers' lead down to 13 points with just two rounds - Spain and Great Britain - remaining. "It's a shame that after such a thrilling three-day battle the result of the rally is decided in the stewards' room," said Hirvonen. "I suffered a points loss in Portugal two years ago, so I know how Sebastien must feel."
The late development also saw Citroen Junior Team driver Conrad Rautenbach disappear from final classifications. Earlier, a triumphant Loeb had said: "It has been a great battle, there's been 35 long stages and it's not easy to keep the rhythm. I knew I had to win and couldn't make any mistakes." However, errors by the mechanical crew now seem to have dented the Frenchman's bid to win a sixth consecutive world championship. No one was available to comment from Citroen.
With Loeb widely expected to win the WRC's penultimate round in Spain, which runs on his favoured tarmac surface, Hirvonen had earlier revealed his dejection being second. "I wanted to win but it wasn't enough, they were faster this weekend and played their tactics well, that it," he said. "Nobody had any room for mistakes, but I knew in the morning it was going to be tough. Mentally I'm not giving up, even though Spain is not my best surface."
Sordo, who is yet to win a World Rally Championship event, is the only original top-five finisher to be unaffected by the infringement penalty. "I'm happy, I tried to catch Mikko but he drove well," he said before the late drama. "The battle was great for the spectators, it was never more than four seconds to either of us. Now we'll see what happens in Spain, maybe I will go faster than Mikko." Further back, Ford's third driver, Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi climbed six places - and jumped another after Rautenbach's disappearance - to finish 19th overall.
The Emirati driver, whose car caught fire at the end of the penultimate stage, posted several top 10 stages times, but was ultimately undone by the 35-minute penalty he shouldered from his day one retirement. "Overall, with the ups and downs, I enjoyed it - especially the last two days," he said. email@example.com