Mikko Hirvonen's flagging World Rally Championship hopes were all but extinguished yesterday as mechanical problems forced him to retire from Rally Germany. The Finnish driver had come to the German event trailing Sebastien Loeb, the championship leader, by 80 points as he sits in fifth place in the standings.
But as Loeb drove serenely on his way to a comfortable lead at the head of the field in his Citroen, Hirvonen's frustrating campaign suffered a new low as he lost drive in his BP Ford Abu Dhabi car on stage 13 yesterday and was forced to park on the side of the road. "The car was in first gear at a hairpin bend when it lost all drive," Hirvonen said. "We pushed the car downhill and off the road. But we couldn't find what was wrong so there was no way we could continue. It was disappointing because I felt happier in the afternoon and my confidence had returned.
"I enjoyed the driving, which wasn't the case in the morning when I didn't have a good feeling with the car. "I lacked confidence and wanted to make the car more precise. Soft tyres were definitely the right choice for the opening three stages but I didn't like the feeling." The Finn is classified eighth in the standings despite his retirement as it was the penultimate stage of the day, and he is on target to score four championship points as he is allowed to restart the event this morning for the final five stages under rally rules.
But he is now 12 minutes adrift of Loeb, and 10 minutes off the pace of the pack, and he will need his rivals to have mechanical problems of their own today if he is to move higher up the order and gain more points. But if Loeb successfully navigates today's final day of the event safely to pick up his fifth win of the campaign then he will increase his lead over Hirvonen to 101 points if they finish the rally in their overnight positions.
That would make it impossible for Hirvonen to catch him in the standings and leave the Finn to reflect on a disappointing campaign. At the front Loeb extended his lead to 36 seconds over his Citroen teammate Dani Sordo, and the Frenchman, who is on target to win a seventh consecutive championship was content with his day's work behind the wheel. Loeb said: "My lead is more than it was in the morning but I know there is still a long way to go."
Sebastien Ogier, the Citroen Junior driver, is in third spot, ahead of the second Ford car of Jari-Matti Latvala, who lost ground after suffering a spin. Despite the event being better suited to the Citroen than the Ford, Latvala has not given up on picking up the final place on the podium as he is just 16 seconds behind Ogier. He said: "Apart from my spin the day went well, but there are still areas in which we can improve. As long as there are kilometres remaining, I will fight to try to regain third, but I can't push any harder."
Khalid Al Qassimi, the Emirati driver, is in 11th place in his Ford, and is only eight seconds off 10th place, and a championship point. "My strategy was to push hard on the fast roads and adopt a more cautious style in the twistier sections and it worked well," al Qassimi said. * Agencies