Cool Hirvonen lives up to his victory pledge

The BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver wins opener and last year's runner-up beats Citroen's Loeb by 42.3 seconds days after laying down gauntlet.

Mikko Hirvonen of Finland drives his Ford  in Hagfors, Sweden, Saturday Feb. 13, 2010, during the second day of Rally Sweden. Mikko Hirvonen extended his lead in the Swedish Rally, moving 16.6 seconds ahead of world champion Sebastien Loeb. (AP Photo/Scanpix Sweden/Micke Fransson)  **  SWEDEN OUT  ** *** Local Caption ***  ST8O08_SWEDEN_RALLY.jpg

Mikko Hirvonen backed up his pre-season words in superb fashion as he sealed victory in Rally Sweden yesterday to start his championship challenge in winning fashion. The BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver, who missed out on the 2009 title by a single point, had vowed to begin this campaign strongly as he seeks to go one better, and he did just that as he won by 42.3 seconds to see off the challenge of world champion Sebastien Loeb.

Ford's delight was doubled as Hirvonen's teammate Jari-Matti Latvala took third place and completed the rostrum, but the real joy was with the winner, whose 12th World Rally Championship victory has given him an early lead in the title race as he took the maximum haul of 25 points. "It's absolutely fantastic," the Finn said. "And I'm really happy it's over after those last few stages; you can't imagine how nervous I was in there [the car].

"It's a perfect start to my year, I've never won the first round before, but after last season I've got one more year of experience. Now I plan to carry on like this. It's a new game in Mexico and I can't wait to get started again." Hirvonen had taken a 16-second lead over Loeb's Citroen into yesterday's final leg of five stages, but any doubts over who the winner was going to be ended on the day's second stage.

There had been nothing between the two rivals on the day's opening stage, but Hirvonen set a blistering pace on stage 18 as he extended his lead by 7.3 seconds. Accepting defeat, Loeb eased back and settled for second place, allowing both men to cruise through the final stages on the snow-covered roads to the finishing line. Loeb, who is aiming for a seventh successive title this year, acknowledged that Hirvonen had been simply too quick for him during the event.

"It's been a tough weekend, and Mikko has done a perfect rally," said Loeb. "We made a little mistake yesterday, but even without it I don't know if I would have been able to beat him in the stages. He was strong and he deserves his victory. I did my best. There's nothing more to say." Latvala drove maturely to take third after a slow start to the event, and the Finn said he was encouraged by his form.

"It's not been an easy weekend," he said. "We were struggling on Friday, but the speed started to come right on Saturday afternoon. "I'm really pleased to finish in this position on the first round of the season." The second Citroen of Dani Sordo was fourth, with the Citroen Junior driver Sebastien Ogier completing the top five. Khalid Al Qassimi recovered well from an early off on Friday in his BP Ford Abu Dhabi car to finish 13th after being down in 35th at one stage.

The Emirati said of his weekend: "I wanted to learn over the course of this rally, and I feel I have achieved this. "I had little experience in these conditions, but as the rally progressed I have grown in confidence. "There were some surprises on the stages, some tight corners and good action, but I enjoyed it."