12 Oct 02
Mikko Hirvonen’s hopes of challenging Sebastien Loeb in this year’s drivers’ championship were dealt a crushing blow on Sunday’s opening stage, when a puncture dropped the Finn from second to fifth place.
The BP Ford Abu Dhabi team driver hit a pothole with his Focus RS WRC in the early part of the 31.88km Agosta to Pont de Calzola stage, puncturing a tyre and forcing him to stop at the 4.2km mark and change the wheel.
Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen eventually completed the stage but lost 2m30s in the incident and dropped to fifth. With a 12 point lead in the drivers’ standings, Citroen’s Sebastien Loeb can wrap up the 2008 title if he wins in Corsica and Hirvonen finishes seventh or lower.
At the finish line a devastated Mikko Hirvonen said his own pace notes were to blame. “There was a hole in the road and I didn’t have it in my pace notes,” he said. “I didn’t see it on the recce.”
Stage winner Sebastien Loeb will carry a 1m06.9s rally lead into Sunday’s second test. “When I got news in the car that Mikko had stopped I almost lost my concentration,” he said. “I thought there was a chance I could be champion here. Then he got going again and I was trying to calculate where he would finish. If it was lower than sixth there would still be a chance, but it doesn’t look like he lost so much time.”
Hirvonen’s team-mate Francois Duval was third quickest on the stage and moved up to second overall. Stobart VK M-sport driver Jari-Matti Latvala moved into the final podium spot.
Briton Matthew Wilson closed on eighth placed Brice Tirabassi but felt he could have got nearer: “I was six seconds down at the first split and then fast at the end!” he said. “I’m making this hard for myself; I need to find more speed at the beginning.”
Citroen privateer Urmo Aava remained seventh but lost a few seconds when he took a wrong turn in a village five kilometres before the finish.