Beaten in this season's epic championship battle, BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen is promising an even "bigger fight" next time around.
Watch out, Hirvonen warns Loeb
He may have ended up the beaten man in this season's epic championship battle, but BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen, who ended the season a point behind world champion Sebastien Loeb after finishing second in the Rally Great Britain title-decider, is promising an even "bigger fight" next time around. "Lots of small things went wrong at the start of the year and I know we will put them right for next season," said Hirvonen, 29. "It's going to be an even bigger fight and they had better watch out."
Having entered the Welsh season finale separated by a single point in the championship, Hirvonen and Loeb embraced the "winner takes all" scenario and delivered a spectacular two-man race for honours. Loeb, the reigning champion, led from the front, but Hirvonen, chasing a maiden world title, refused to give up. With only four stages scheduled in yesterday's final round, the Finn won the first two, chopping over 12 seconds off his rival's 30.2sec overnight lead.
But an unfortunate incident in stage 15, the event's penultimate test, ended Hirvonen's charge. The Finn's bonnet flipped up, completely shielding the driver's view of the road. The time Hirvonen took to stop, pin the bonnet down and get back up to full speed effectively turned a previously gripping showdown into a Loeb procession. "It's really disappointing for me, but that's how it is," said Hirvonen. "I have to forget this now and try again next year.
"We took a lot of time out of [Loeb] in the second stage, and maybe if everything had gone well I could have kept the pressure. I tried but [the bonnet incident] technically ended my fight." Malcolm Wilson, the dejected Ford team director, also predicted Hirvonen will utilise the painful lessons of this year's disappointment and, albeit belatedly, dethrone Loeb in 12 months time. "Sebastien knows Mikko is five or six years younger than him and knows how much stronger he has got this season," said Wilson.
"I'm really looking forward to 2010 and if you look at the way these two guys have performed on this rally, they have been a different class to be honest. "Mikko will keep on improving and he'll be even stronger next season," added Wilson. Hirvonen's Ford was the only non-Citroen in the rally's top four. Spain's Dani Sordo, who finished just a second behind Hirvonen, was third, while Petter Solberg, the 2003 world champion, was fourth. Henning Solberg, Petter's elder brother, finished fifth, with a pair of Fords behind him.
Stobart's Matthew Wilson finished sixth, some three-and-half minutes ahead of Rally Italy winner Jari-Matti Latvala, the only driver fast enough to break the astounding stranglehold of 11 victories Loeb and Hirvonen have shared in the WRC's 12-event season. "It's been a character building weekend," said a forlorn Latvala last night. The UAE's Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi, who suffered a broken drive shaft on Friday's opening leg, continued his recovery during yesterday's 80km of competitive stages.
The Emirati, 37, defied the slippery conditions to climb 34 places in the event's final two days and finished 20th overall. "It's been a good season, we've scored points, got faster and constantly improved," said al Qassimi. "With all the problems I've had this season I'm pleased. We need to keep going, things have got better and better but we're not there yet," he added. Elsewhere, Eyvind Brynildsen used his healthy overnight lead to play the percentages and stroll to the Production WRC title. "I'm only 21 and this is a very special moment for me," said Brynildsen, who finished ninth overall.