Mikko Hirvonen completed a mature drive over tricky terrain to claim victory in yesterday's final day of the Rally of Japan, but it was not enough to keep alive his hopes of winning the drivers' championship. The Finnis driver came home ahead of his teammate Jari-Matti Latvala in Sapporo where heavy rain on the last day made conditions tough, but Sebastien Loeb's third place for Citroen was enough to give the Frenchman his fifth successive title.
But while it was bad news for Hirvonen after his strong showing on the gravel event, the news was good for the BP-Ford Abu Dhabi team as the one-two finish gave them fresh hope of winning the constructors' championship. They now trail Citroen by eleven points going into the season's final round in Great Britain next month. Malcolm Wilson, team director of BP-Ford, was thrilled with his team's performance.
"Full credit to both drivers for delivering incredible performances in what were probably the most changeable road conditions we've seen on a rally," he said. "It keeps our championship hopes alive and the same top three on the final round would give us the crown again." Hirvonen took solace from the fact that his team can still win this season, even if he no longer can as he trails Loeb by 10 points.
If he wins in Britain and Loeb failed to finish they would finish level on points, but Loeb is guaranteed the crown thanks to his superior number of race wins - 10 to Hirvonen's three. "I'm delighted with the win but at the same time disappointed that my hopes of the drivers' title are over," Hirvonen said. "We did all we could but it wasn't enough to prevent Loeb winning the title, which he richly deserves - I congratulate him.
"Although the drivers' championship is out of reach, we will go to the final round with the manufacturers' title still possible and my thoughts will now focus on that." Latvala was content with his improved form as he drove a strong race to take second place behind his teammate, and the Finn is confident they can repeat the result in the forests of Wales in five weeks time. "It feels fantastic to take a top three finish on gravel again - I really wanted this result," he said.
"The difficult rallies really suit this car, which is incredibly strong. "We have had no problems during the weekend and when you have to attack in rough and tough conditions then it's encouraging to know that the car excels on that type of road. "The conditions are likely to be similar in Wales - and we will be ready." The result sees Latvala move back upto fourth in the drivers' table, leapfrogging the Subaru of Chris Atkinson.