Mikko Hirvonen claimed Ford's first World Rally Championship victory for nine rounds in Australia, after a rally that began with rain and chaos, and ended with a flurry of team orders.
Ford ended its drought in emphatic style, with Hirvonen's team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala coming home second. The team had not won since the season opener in Sweden, but Hirvonen's consistency in the interim meant that the Australian result brought him straight back into title contention, placing him 15 points behind Sebastien Loeb with three rallies to go.
Friday had seen heavy rain and extraordinarily slippery conditions, and at first it was Citroen duo Loeb and Sebastien Ogier who battled for victory as both Ford men made minor errors and lost time. But after Loeb rolled and Ogier slid into a tree, Hirvonen and Latvala found themselves back in first and second – and were able to charge away from third-placed Petter Solberg (Solberg Citroen).
With Latvala almost out of mathematical title contention but Hirvonen still in with a shout, Ford had no qualms about hinting that the elder of its Finns was going to be in front by the finish whatever happened in the interim.
So while Latvala moved into the lead on Saturday, when Hirvonen lost time running first on the road, a reversal of positions was always inevitable. Sure enough, on the penultimate stage of the rally Latvala slowed significantly and dropped into second place as Hirvonen reclaimed the lead and went on to clinch the win.
"I do like this place, it's been really kind to us, but we have this victory only because of the fantastic teamwork we have done," said Hirvonen, who has now won the last three Rally Australias. "It's a fantastic result and it's so important for Ford. Of course big thanks to Jari-Matti for slowing down on the long stage and giving me the points for the championship. Now we're back in it."
Both Citroen drivers were able to rejoin under superally for Saturday. Initially Ogier seemed to have by far the better chance of salvaging something from the event, as his charge brought him within sight of eighth place, while 11th looked to be Loeb's limit.
However, Citroen decided on the final day that with Hirvonen gaining so much championship ground, it had to throw all its efforts behind Loeb – despite Ogier having started the rally second in the standings, 25 points from his teammate.
Ogier was therefore ordered to check in late before the penultimate stage to incur a penalty, and then to park on the stage for 10 minutes. That dropped him back to finish 11th, and ensured Loeb was able to grab 10th place. The world champion then added a further three points to his tally by winning the power stage, which saw Latvala and Solberg take the second and third bonus points.
"The team made a decision because we are now under pressure from Mikko after our mistake," said Loeb. "That is the situation."
Overshadowed by the Ford and Citroen adventures, Solberg was buoyed by the pace he showed on the way to third, feeling he was back in contention after two low-key rallies.
Attrition was high from the outset, and Matthew Wilson (Stobart Ford) and Khalid Al Qassimi (Abu Dhabi Ford) were the only other WRC drivers to get through the three days unscathed. That gave them fourth and fifth places - equalling Wilson's best ever World Rally Championship result, and giving Al Qassimi his highest finish to date.
Wilson's team-mates Henning Solberg and Evgeny Novikov had eventful weekends. Novikov was challenging Petter Solberg on Friday before damaging his car and having to retire. He got back to 10th under superally only to have an enormous crash on Sunday morning. Solberg ran fourth until an electrical glitch, and then made it to the end in 14th under superally despite rolling on Sunday afternoon then sustaining a double puncture on the power stage.
The WRC carnage allowed several Production class runners to finish in the overall points, led by rising star Hayden Paddon (Symtech Subaru). The New Zealand driver claimed the Production title with class victory and a superb outright sixth place, having charged back past rival Michal Kosciuszko after a turbo gremlin on Saturday. Paddon has won on all four of his Production appearances this year.
Leading finishers after SS26:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Mikko Hirvonen Ford 3h35m59.0s
2. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 14.7s
3. Petter Solberg Solberg Citroen + 44.8s
4. Matthew Wilson Stobart Ford + 8m45.2s
5. Khalid Al Qassimi Abu Dhabi Ford + 12m33.3s
6. Hayden Paddon Symtech Subaru + 17m29.3s
7. Michal Kosciuszko Lotos Mitsubishi + 19m01.3s
8. Oleksandr Saliuk Mentos Mitsubishi + 21m08.5s
9. Benito Guerra GMA Mitsubishi + 22m48.9s
10. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 30m02.9s
Other WRC finishers:
11. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 30m19.4s
13. Peter van Merksteijn Van Merksteijn Citroen + 32m21.0s
14. Henning Solberg Stobart Ford + 32m23.7s
19. Ken Block Monster Ford + 42m01.9s
Evgeny Novikov Stobart Ford SS22
Daniel Oliveira Brazil Mini SS22
Leading power stage results:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen 2m18.1s
2. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 1.2s
3. Petter Solberg Solberg Citroen + 1.3s
4. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 1.6s
5. Ken Block Monster Ford + 3.3s