x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Mechanical woes put Hirvonen out of contention

However, BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Latvala finishes third and is pleased to have a spot on the podium.

Mikko Hirvonen and his co-driver, Jarmo Lehtinen, suffered mechanical problems.
Mikko Hirvonen and his co-driver, Jarmo Lehtinen, suffered mechanical problems.

Mechanical problems ended any hopes that Mikko Hirvonen, the BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver, had of a third consecutive Rally Japan triumph yesterday, but teammate Jari-Matti Latvala took third place in the World Rally Championship's Far East round. Having jostled for top honours with Petter Solberg during two days of high-speed cat-and-mouse, Hirvonen, running second, broke a hydraulic pump during the 17.86km Naekawa 1 - the final leg's opening stage.

The loss of both the semi-automatic gear-change and centre differential caused the 2009 championship runner-up to fade from contention. He finished sixth. Latvala, however, was the main beneficiary of Hirvonen's slip down the order, the Ford No 2 ending as the only non-Citroen entry in the top five. "It's been a strange weekend," Latvala said via telephone from Sapporo. "I'm quite surprised to finish third because I thought my podium chances had gone after spinning in Saturday's super special stage. I'm happy with the podium, it's a great result."

With Sebastien Loeb passing the stricken Hirvonen on the Naekawa 2 afternoon repeat to claim fifth, the Frenchman can now seal a seventh successive title with victory at Rally France later this month. As Citroen continue to dominate, Latvala was left dejected by Hirvonen's misfortunate. "The team performance was good, but it's a real shame about Mikko. It's really bad for him," said Latvala, who retained third in the drivers' standings. "Technical problems have ruined his chances twice on the trot now and his luck just doesn't seem to be changing."

Sebastien Ogier, the Citroen Junior Team driver who was handed a works drive for the Japanese gravel test, strolled to a second WRC win and first in a works car. Ogier, who began the last leg third overall and more than five seconds behind Solberg, benefitted from the absence of a midday service as technical problems eroded the respective challenges of Hirvonen and Solberg. "It's amazing, I'm really happy," Ogier told wrc.com. "Arriving here for the first time I said this will be a difficult rally for me. I don't like these kind of very rough stages, but I immediately found a good feeling and rhythm. Now we've won, so it's perfect."

With Solberg's crew unable to mend a suspected broken damper, Ogier took the lead for the first time after going fastest through Naekawa 1. As the afternoon progressed, steering problems added to the fever-stricken Norwegian's problems and, having struggled to reach the finish, the 2003 World Champion was content to have clinched second. "I never thought it would go so well after the fever because I was feeling terrible at the start of the rally. It's just unfortunate we had a problem with the car," Solberg told wrc.com, before praising Ogier's performance.

"He's a super talent. People so good only come along once in a while and he will be very, very good in the future." Dani Sordo, relegated to the Citroen juniors after Ogier's promotion to a works drive, finished fourth, with Henning Solberg seventh and Federico Villagra eighth. * Compiled by Euan Megson