Mikko Hirvonen has reduced Sebastien Loeb's World Rally Championship lead to just seven points by winning the Acropolis Rally of Greece.
WRC rookie Sebastien Ogier took a sensational second place, with Jari-Matti Latvala adding to Ford's delight by recovering from a Friday error to take third -- which meant an 18-point haul for the manufacturers' title race as Ogier was not registered to score.
Things had looked much worse for Ford on Friday afternoon, when Latvala spun off the road while leading, and Citroen's Dani Sordo then slowed to put Hirvonen into the lead instead -- guaranteeing that the Finn would be sweeping the dusty stages clear for those behind on Saturday.
That should have left him vulnerable to both Sordo and Loeb, but Citroen's challenge fell apart on the second morning, as first Loeb had a massive accident while running third, then Sordo broke his suspension while pressuring Hirvonen for the lead.
There was still one threat to Hirvonen's position as Petter Solberg had charged back to second - thanks to both a good road position and some blistering stage times - following early steering problems and was within 21 seconds of the leading Ford. But any hope of a sensational privateer victory for Solberg ended when he too broke his suspension on Saturday afternoon, which eventually forced his retirement despite the crew's tireless repair efforts.
That left Hirvonen free to cruise home and clinch his first victory of 2009, and Ford's 70th WRC win, reigniting the title fight in the process.
"It really looked very difficult but it's turned out to be OK," said Hirvonen. "A perfect weekend for us, no mistakes and a really clever drive.
"We're back in the game again. We thought before this rally that if you get through without any problems, you're going to be really high up, and we proved the point."
Ogier did his hopes of completing the season with Citroen Junior no harm at all by taking second, his first podium, despite a major scare this morning when he struck a cow and sustained front end damage to his C4.
"A perfect weekend, we did an intelligent rally without mistakes," Ogier said. "We conserved the car, just had a puncture on the first day, and we're very happy. For sure [the future] looks better with a result like this."
Latvala attracted the wrath of his team again when he threw away the lead on Friday, but felt he atoned with his steady recovery drive afterwards.
"This was a very important weekend for us and now Ford has a better chance in the championship against Citroen," said Latvala. "It didn't look so good on Friday evening, but things can turn around quite quickly. I'm massively relieved."
Evgeny Novikov had also come back through the field in fine style, taking three stage wins as he made amends following costly tyre damage and getting up to fourth. But the young Russian tumbled down the order due to a broken differential this morning.
With SS16 cancelled due to spectators in dangerous places, the battle for fourth was not settled until the final 33-kilometre Aghii Theodori test. Citroen Junior's Conrad Rautenbach had been closing on Munchi's Ford driver Federico Villagra, and was less than a second adrift going into the decider, but a brilliant charge by Villagra saw him pull away from Rautenbach and claim the position with an 11s advantage.
With both Stobart Fords having to use superally (Matthew Wilson after very early engine problems, Henning Solberg following a suspension breakage), and Mads Ostberg breaking a damper when running in the top five on Saturday, Ford number three Khalid Al Qassimi took a career best sixth, ahead of the unlucky Ostberg's Adapta Subaru.
Local wild card Lambros Athanassoulas won a superb Production battle. The Skoda driver led for most of the event, but engine problems allowed Nasser Al-Attiyah to get ahead briefly yesterday evening.
Athanassoulas reclaimed the lead this morning and went on to win, while second sufficed for Al-Attiyah as he still beat title rival Armindo Araujo. Patrik Sandell's championship hopes ended when he tumbled down the order with electrical issues on Saturday.RESULTS:
Pos Driver Car Time
1. Mikko Hirvonen Ford 4h09m42.5s
2. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 1m12.9s
3. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 1m45.0s
4. Federico Villagra Ford + 3m48.3s
5. Conrad Rautenbach Citroen + 3m59.8s
6. Khalid Al Qassimi Ford + 7m04.3s
7. Mads Ostberg Subaru + 12m24.9s
8. Lambros Athanassoulas Skoda + 12m47.6s
9. Nasser Al-Attiyah Subaru + 13m09.9s
10. Armindo Araujo Mitsubishi + 15m04.5s