Once Sebastien Loeb had given himself a fright with a major moment on stage nine, team boss Yves Matton quite wisely decided that enough was enough - particularly with Ford’s Dani Sordo, Citroen’s closest challenger, more than a minute away in third.
And so the call came through to Loeb and Hirvonen to calm their antics down. Loeb would have his 70th career victory, to consolidate his lead of the drivers’ championship (which remained miraculously intact despite his failure to score in Portugal) and reinforce Citroen’s grip on the manufacturers’ standings.
But even once Citroen had decided to end the duel between their drivers, a result was by no means in the bag. Argentina proved to be just as tough as 500 kilometres of stages had promised, with the feel of the event being more like a mini-Dakar Rally than an extended world championship event.
The weather conditions didn’t help: late April is the Argentine autumn, with talk of ice and snow on some of the higher stages. Even Sebastien Loeb spun three times on Friday morning: an event that is about as a rare as the dodo.
This is why the decision to halt their battle was sensible but probably a touch unfair on Hirvonen: he definitely had the measure of his team-mate in Argentina, feeling more comfortable on the slippery sections in particular. A lot of that was down to tyre choice, with the crews having to decide when to make use of their limited allocation of soft compound tyres, especially over the long stages.
With the crews not allowed to cut the tyres to disperse extra mud either, caution was the watchword in Argentina. And once again, that was probably what let Ford down. According to Petter Solberg, there was a rock right on the racing line that couldn’t be avoided.
But it was just unfortunate that he happened to be in the lead at the time it showed up, and that once more it led to a brief retirement. “We’ve thrown it away again,” is all team principal Malcolm Wilson could say once he heard the news.
However, Solberg’s sheer tenacity - a hallmark of his career since he burst onto the WRC scene as a fresh-faced blond youngster in 1999 - is still keeping him in the thick of the championship, despite all those off-road excursions. This last incident could have been a big one - and yet, Solberg has once again gathered it all together and walked away with some valuable points. It also keeps the manufacturers’ championship fight alive as far as Ford is concerned.
So despite the appearances, this championship is a long way from over yet - even though Jari-Matti Latvala is spending more time undergoing physiotherapy than driving rally cars right now following his broken collarbone. If the rumours are to be believed, and Latvala is ultimately heading for Volkswagen (although the reality is that nothing has been signed yet) Dani Sordo has also done his future employment prospects a world of good with his weekend’s work in Villa Carlos Paz. Because he can deliver what Ford desperately needs at the moment: consistency without ill-considered risks. The fact that he didn’t quite deliver the podium is largely irrelevant: it was as good as secured.
The Argentina experiment also proved that Solberg and Sordo work well together as a team: we may just have seen a foretaste of Ford’s 2013 line-up...
However, Volkswagen should also be getting a much clearer idea of how it could work for them next year following Andreas Mikkelsen’s stunning performance in Argentina. It was also a frustrating end for him, but the point has been proved: no other young driver will take the fight as consistently to team leader Sebastien Ogier as Mikkelsen will, and Volkswagen need look no further for their number two. In a field that thinned out progressively, the battle between the two Fabia drivers was a real highlight of the action.
And action was something that was never lacking in Argentina, which was the longest WRC event since the 2002 Safari Rally at just over 500 competitive kilometres. Matadero-Ambul, at 66 kilometres, is going to be the longest stage of the world championship this year, but being wide and fast it wasn’t actually the most challenging stage, which was instead probably the 51.88 kilometres of Ascochinga-Agua de Oro.
This stage was tighter, slower, rougher, and with much worse weather, which made it a typically Argentinian challenge. The watersplashes in particular were a constant hazard, capable of stopping drivers in their tracks. Not even the experience gained from similar roads on the Dakar could prevent Nasser Al-Attiyah, for example, from falling prey to the treacherous conditions. And he was in esteemed company.
But as Nasser himself pointed out, Argentina had something very special: helped by the enthusiastic army of fans who turned up in even greater numbers than normal this year, clinging to the hillsides despite weather conditions that frequently bordered on the anti-social.
This underlined the fact that the FIA’s thinking on endurance stages - to turn every rally into an adventure - is working. With stages of this length and complexity, dramas are bound to happen. However, this also has the effect of increasing the gaps between competitors: the gap from second to third was three minutes, and third to fourth nearly seven minutes. So it’s old-style rallying, with the focus frequently on survival rather than performance.
That’s exactly how it used to be: while the Group B cars of the 1980s are eternally revered as the fastest and most spectacular cars ever to grace the world’s stages, the irony is that there was absolutely no way that their drivers could have gone flat-out from start to finish, because the cars were just too fragile. But mashing a throttle pedal is the easiest thing in the world. The art of driving lies more in knowing when to lift off it.