Mikko Hirvonen has clinched his third consecutive victory and his first home win on the Rally Finland. The result stretches the Ford driver's lead over Citroen rival Sebastien Loeb in the World Rally Championship to three points with three rounds to go.
In last year's Finland event Loeb edged ahead of Hirvonen on day one and stayed out of reach as both pushed flat-out all weekend, with the French legend finally defeating the Finns at home. But this time the roles were reversed, as it was Hirvonen who made the initial break and proved impossible for Loeb to catch, despite his best efforts.
Although Loeb called off his challenge for victory after damaging a tire on Saturday morning, even before that incident he was already 10s behind Hirvonen and looking unlikely to catch his title rival, who duly cruised home to clinch arguably the finest and most important win of his career to date.
"It's an absolutely great feeling," said Hirvonen. "It went exactly like we planned. It was a very tight fight against Sebastien. We were pulling away slowly, but when he had the puncture we could take it a bit easier."
Loeb was relieved to at least return to the podium following his run of bad rallies, and paid tribute to Hirvonen's pace.
"It was a good battle, but he was really good, really fast," he said. "It was looking good for him and then when I had my puncture it was over, I lost too much time and it was impossible to come back.
"But it's OK, we're here. We only lost two points in the championship, not 10 like we did in the last two rallies."
Ford number two Jari-Matti Latvala put his recent errors -- and his previous Rally Finland crashes -- behind him to beat Dani Sordo to third after a rally-long fight with his Citroen counterpart, despite a stomach bug hampering him on Saturday.
"It's definitely been the hardest result to get," Latvala reckoned. "I was cautious on Friday because of the incident in Poland. Then I was very sick on Saturday and I had to fight against Dani, who was doing his best ever Rally Finland."
Sordo felt that being beaten by a Finn was no disgrace given his relative lack of experience on the fast gravel roads.
"We pushed a lot, I lost the fight with Jari-Matti but I am happy because he is very, very fast in Finland," said Sordo. "I'm happy with my car and my performance. I could have gone a little faster but I would have needed to take many, many risks and we needed the finish for the manufacturers' championship."
Fifth came down to a final stage contest between local star Matti Rantanen, making a guest appearance for Munchi's Ford, and Citroen Junior's Sebastien Ogier. The Frenchman got quicker and quicker throughout the weekend, hunting down Rantanen as the ambitious Finn became increasingly frustrated by his inability to match the top four factory drivers. The pair went into the final stage just 0.6sec apart, but though Ogier had momentum on his side after a string of quick times, Rantanen did just enough to claim the place by 0.3sec.
"It was really tight with Ogier so I'm really happy, it's incredible," said Rantanen.
Ogier added: "It's been a very good rally for me, it's not really a problem whether I finish fifth or sixth. It's a fantastic result, but I can't believe [how close it is]."
Ogier's result was the high point of a tough weekend for Citroen Junior, which saw Evgeny Novikov crash on both Friday and Saturday mornings, and Conrad Rautenbach struggling for pace and eventually retiring due to an accident on the penultimate stage.
Henning Solberg (Stobart Ford) and Mads Ostberg (Adapta Subaru) had been in the hunt for fifth until broken suspension and a crash respectively ended their rallies on day two. Solberg's younger brother Petter also had a difficult event, dropping out of second on the first morning when two incidents left him without enough undamaged tires to complete the first loop.
Local star Jari Ketomaa (making an impressive World Rally car debut with a private Subaru) and Matthew Wilson (Stobart) completed the scorers.
2007 Formula 1 champion Kimi Raikkonen's first WRC appearance was the highlight of the event for many, and the Ferrari driver impressed greatly. Despite various glitches on his Abarth Grande Punto, Raikkonen was running third among the Super 2000 cars and matching the division frontrunners' times when he rolled out yesterday afternoon.
The rally also saw the first of this year's champions crowned. Martin Prokop led the Junior class from the outset, and his comfortable victory was enough to clinch the title.Leading finishers:
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Mikko Hirvonen Ford 2h50m40.9s
2. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 25.1s
3. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 49.9s
4. Dani Sordo Citroen + 1m06.1s
5. Matti Rantanen Ford + 4m18.2s
6. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 4m18.5s
7. Jari Ketomaa Subaru + 5m07.5s
8. Matthew Wilson Ford + 6m33.6s
9. Khalid Al Qassimi Ford + 12m57.3s
10. Juho Hanninen Skoda + 14m13.7s